Brazilian Police Recover $4.3M from $70M Bank Robbery

Thieves had spent months tunneling under a city street, into bank's vault


SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Brazilian police on Wednesday recovered about US$4.3 million (euro3.6 million) of the US$70 million (euro58 million) stolen last month in a heist from Brazil's Central Bank, one of the world's biggest bank robberies.

Authorities raided a home in the northeastern city of Fortaleza where the bank heist occurred and found the money hidden in a hole in the floor, federal police said in a statement.

Police were still counting the money, but spokeswoman Patricia Ferreira said the initial estimate of the amount was US$4.3 million (euro3.6 million). Five suspects were taken into custody. Three other suspects were arrested eight days ago.

The thieves spent months tunneling under a busy city avenue in Fortaleza, a city about 1,500 (2,400 kilometers) miles northeast of Sao Paulo, to break into the Central Bank vault and steal the equivalent of US$70 million (euro58 million) in Brazilian currency, the real.

More than US$2 million (euro1.66 million) in cash was recovered shortly after the heist inside three pickup trucks found on a vehicle transporter several hundred miles (kilometers) from Fortaleza.

While the amount taken from the bank surpassed the US$65 million stolen in 1987 from the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Center in London, once recognized by experts as the biggest robbery, it was dwarfed by the theft of US$900 million in U.S. bills along with US$100 million worth of euros from the Iraq Central Bank in 2003.

After tunneling for three months, the thieves crawled through a 70-centimeter-high (28-inch high) tunnel that stretched 80 meters (262 feet) from a house they rented near the bank. The tunnel had wooden panels and plastic sheeting lining the walls, as well as electric lighting.

The thieves left behind shovels, pickaxes, saws, drills and other tools they used to dig the tunnel and cut through the vault's 1.1-meter-thick (3.6-foot-thick), steel-reinforced concrete floor.

Inside the vault, the thieves broke into containers filled with used 50-real notes - equivalent to about US$22 (euro18) - which were apparently transported back through the tunnel by a pulley system attached to a plastic barrel.

Prosecutors have said the group tried to charter a small plane a couple of days before the robbery to use it in the escape and to transport the money out of the country.

Prosecutors also said some of the money stolen was taken from Fortaleza to Sao Paulo hidden inside grain sacks.

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Associated Press Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this story from Sao Paulo.

(c) 2005 Associated Press