Thieves in Brazil Tunnel Their Way into Financial Building, Steal $1.6M

Highly organized thieves wearing monkey and clown masks tunneled into a company that transports money for banks, surprised workers counting cash and made off with 4.7 million reals ($1.6 million, euro1.4 million), police said Wednesday.

At least eight men broke through a bathroom of Nordeste Transbank Seguranca e Transporte de Valores Monday night after digging a 120-meter (yard) tunnel from a nearby house, said Naif Saadi, police chief for the district where the crime occurred.

Wielding AK-47 semiautomatic rifles, the thieves forced about 75 workers tallying cash for automatic teller machines to stuff the money in bags and fled back through the tunnel after spending only 10 minutes inside the building, Saadi said.

Police were trying to determine whether the thieves may have had help from someone working at the company because they managed to tunnel exactly where they wanted to arrive in the building, Saadi said. The bathroom for the room where the cash counters work had no alarm system to detect an intrusion.

"They certainly had information about how this company worked, and mapped the end of the tunnel with exact precision,'' Saadi said.

The company has a fleet of more than 500 armored cars and is a division of Grupo Nordeste, one of Brazil's biggest security companies. Its clients include Brazil's biggest banks, state-owned oil giant Petrobras and the country's postal service, the company's Web site said. Company officials declined comment Wednesday on the robbery.

The thieves apparently chose Monday to enter the building because many people in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, took the day off to make a long weekend because of a national holiday on Tuesday.

Alarms were triggered when the thieves went from the bathroom to the cash counting room. Police said the company asked authorities not to immediately intervene so workers wouldn't be hurt.

Before leaving, the thieves put several cylinders in the room and falsely claimed they were filled with explosives. No workers were hurt during the robbery.

Authorities suspect that other thieves may have stayed in the tunnel to help take the money out because spent oxygen tanks were found in the tunnel, Saadi said.

Police found the house where the tunnel was started Tuesday afternoon after becoming suspicious because it was the only one in the area where exterior lights had been left on during the day.