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'Robin Hood' bandits haunt Brazilian towns leaving bank notes strewn across the streets

For one night only, the placid Brazilian town of Criciúma became the scene of a Hollywood-style bank heist.

Early on Tuesday morning, approximately 30 heavily armed criminals rolled into the city in equally heavy vehicles. In a meticulously organised operation, the gang barricaded Criciúma's main access roads and laid siege to a local police station, while another group made off with large quantities of money from a local bank branch. Two people were injured, including one police officer.

The criminals used explosives to blow up cash machines and loot the reserves within. In the aftermath of the robbery, the surrounding streets were littered with banknotes, causing locals to leave their houses and gather up as much cash as they could carry.

"I thought the noises were fireworks at first", said one Criciúma resident. "But then I saw the men outside, they were shouting: 'get away from the windows, we don't want to kill anyone'".

The following day, an almost identical heist took place 3,500 kilometres away in the town of Cametá. In this second robbery, a 25-year-old hostage was killed.

Similar robberies in provincial towns have been a recurring phenomenon in recent decades. The plan of attack is always the same: gangs of criminals armed with military-grade weapons target small to medium-sized cities with a limited police presence and minimal access roads. While one group occupies the local police, the other carries out the robbery.

The growing wave of heists has been largely unaffected by government policy or the economic climate. Public security experts blame the country’s heavy-handed policing strategy, with overcrowding in Brazil’s penitentiaries serving to inflate the ranks of criminal gangs.

The phenomenon is often referred to as the "new cangaço", a reference to a period of banditry in the northeast of Brazil during the early 20th century. The cangaceiros were nomadic bands of outlaws who roamed the hinterlands of Brazil, stealing from banks, police and corrupt provincial landowners.

By targeting the rich and unscrupulous, there is a Robin Hood-like element to their fame in Brazilian culture. Today, notable cangaceiros are often regarded as national heroes.

The "new cangaço", on the other hand, shares no such public appeal, being orchestrated by the First Command of the Capital (PCC), South America's biggest drug cartel. Police have arrested nine suspects in connection with the Criciúma robbery, several of whom have direct ties to the gang.

The PCC has its origins in the penitentiaries of São Paulo state, where prisoners banded together to demand an end to brutality from law enforcement. When the PCC was taken over by notorious bank robber Marcos "Marcola" Camacho in 2002, the group expanded into heists, drug trafficking and gunrunning to fund its cause.

The inhumane conditions in Brazil's overcrowded prisons allowed the PCC to grow exponentially, enabling them to recruit members with a variety of criminal specialties, including explosives experts and heavy artillery dealers. In turn, their heists became ever more elaborate, organised and lucrative.

Public security officials have not revealed exactly how much money was stolen during the robberies in Criciúma and Cametá.

But "think of the cost of carrying out a crime like this and repeating it 24 hours later on the other side of Brazil", said federal judge Ivana David. "You need money, cars, safe houses, weapons, explosives - all this is extremely expensive. They walked away with a truck full of cash".

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