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Robbery of the century; GANGSTERS TURN A CITY INTO A WAR ZONE IN THE..

Byline: ROD McPHEE and MATT ROPER

We've all watched action films and thought the amount of explosions and bullets was overkill that would never happen in real life.

But residents in a South American city will tell you otherwise after a 50-strong gang turned up for a heist with an arsenal big enough to wage a small war.

Packing grenades, rocket launchers, sniper rifles and even anti-aircraft guns, they hit Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, in a bid to bag PS31million so audacious it could have come from a screenplay.

And they kicked things off with a preemptive strike on the police station.

With officers trapped or otherwise occupied, the rest of the gang blasted into the vaults of a nearby security firm.

Most of the gang got away in what's already being described as the "robbery of the century", their success put down to superior firepower and planning.

"They had an arsenal which easily outweighed that of the national police," said interior minister Lorenzo Lezcano.

"This was a well-planned operation.

All the evidence points to the fact that these are members of the PCC."

The Primeiro Comando da Capital - First Capital Command - is a powerful Brazilian gang from Sao Paulo. Authorities there named arch criminal Rogerio Jeremias de Simone as the heist's most likely ringleader. Known as Gege do Mangue, he was already on the run as he faced two murder charges. With 13,000 members - half behind bars - the PCC is Brazil's largest criminal faction. It dominates many jails and was behind a recent uprising in one where hundreds of lags from rival gangs were decapitated.

The assault began around midnight on Monday when the gang blew up cars and trucks outside the police station and attacked the building with grenades and petrol bombs.

But this was only a diversion. As some of the gang kept police pinned down in a street battle, a larger group targeted the site of private security firm Prosegur, believed to have contained the equivalent of PS31million.

Arriving in armoured vehicles, they killed policemen Sabino Ramon Benitez Vazquez in a gunfight. Three bystanders were also injured in crossfire. The gang then spent three hours using C-4 plastic explosives to blast through the walls surrounding Prosegur's reinforced vault.

Alejandro Anisimoff, who lives opposite, said he saw "two trucks with lots of people who weren't police". He says he turned to his wife and said: "I don't know if we are going to get out of this alive."

After calling police, the couple were told to get on the ground, under a bed.

Liz Davalos, the manager of a hotel near the depot, said: 'M the windows of the hotel burst because of the power of the bombs. I thought they were fireworks but within minutes you could see that they were much louder explosions."

Another resident four blocks away, Sinforiano, said: "It was a terrible scare. We thought someone was letting off fireworks, then we realised what we were hearing was gunfire followed by a bomb.

"We spent the whole night lying on the floor, all of us very scared."

After raiding the vault, the gang went to great lengths to prevent police from hindering their escape. They obscured and limited access by setting fire to 11 vehicles in front of the building.

Even if officers braved the smoke on foot, the masked thieves had infra-red

sights. And there was that anti-aircraft gun in case helicopters arrived.

However, not everything went like clockwork. Three raiders were killed and the rest did not get away with the entire haul, bagging the equivalent of PS6million.

They fled in three security vans and scattered metal spikes on roads behind them to burst the tyres of any pursuers. One motorist told Paraguay's ABC newspaper he punctured a wheel and got out to see what had happened.

He said: "Four trucks stopped and 15 people got out wearing balaclavas and holding weapons. I was thrown to the floor and my daughter was asked to go to the back seat. Then they told me to get back in the car and escape."

The gang then used speedboats moored on the nearby Parana River, which is a natural border with Brazil.

On Tuesday, police exchanged gunfire with a dozen of the raiders, spotted at two locations on the Brazilian bank of lLake Itaipu, through which the Parana runs. Some 400 regular and military police were sent.

Brazil's President, Michel Temer, said he would provide "all necessary resources" for the manhunt.

Since the raid, 10 gang members have been held and the equivalent of PS1million of the loot retrieved.

Meanwhile, the fallout of the assault in Paraguay was huge, with several police chiefs sacked.

It has also come as a major setback for Ciudad del Este, which sits on the border of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Resting at the heart of a major route for drugs smuggling, the nation has been dogged by the accompanying violence.

Paraguay is trying to shed its bloody reputation and Brazilian investment had helped spur one of the fastest economic growth rates in Latin America.

But the PCC is expanding into Paraguay, where it last June killed drug lord Jorge Rafaat Toumani, until then considered the "king of the border" with Brazil.

His death paved the way for the group to dominate the Bolivia-Peru-Paraguay trafficking route towards Brazil.

So though this week's attack may have been branded the "robbery of the century", it looks set to be only the first of many gang-related clashes to come.

rod.mcphee@mirror.co.uk

Latest in a long line of big raids

Central Bank of Iraq, 2003: PS714m Saddam Hussein's son Qusay spent 5hrs emptying vaults.

Banco Central, Fortaleza, Brazil, 2005: PS54m Gang dug 256ft tunnel into the vault.

Securitas, Kent, 2006: PS53.1m Cagefighters kidnapped manager.

Northern Bank, Belfast, 2004: PS26.5m Robbers held families of two bank managers at gunpoint.

Brink's-MAT, London, 1983: PS26m Bent security guard gave the robbers access to a Heathrow Airport warehouse.

We spent the whole night lying on the floor, all of us very scared WITNESS SINOFORIANO ON TERROR OF THE RAID

CAPTION(S):

Assault rifle and some stolen money RECOVERED

Police with wrecked armoured truck AUDACIOUS

Dead robber after shootout with cops aftermath

One of the 10 gangsters held arrested

Dead police VICT e officer Sabino TIM

Prosegur's HQ was blasted with C4 devastation

The border is on a key drug trafficking route BATTLEGROUND
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 28, 2017
Words:1071
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