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Armed Gang Attacks Criciúma, Brazil, Holds People Hostage While Robbing Bank

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night in southern Brazil, an organized crime gang orchestrated an elaborate and violent bank heist. NPR's Philip Reeves reports. And a warning - the sound of gunfire is part of this story.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Criciuma is a small city not far from the Atlantic Ocean. It was founded by Italian immigrants and is famous for making ceramic tiles. The place is normally...

GUILHERME CORDEIRO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Very quiet, says Guilherme Cordeiro, a reporter with the local paper. You certainly wouldn't expect this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

REEVES: That's a video of last night's events posted online by a resident.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

REEVES: Bank robberies of one form or another are common in Brazil. Last year, there was an average of one every three days, according to the Brazilian Bank Federation. Yet the assault on a bank in Criciuma was in a different league than most. Reports suggest it was conducted like a military operation. It started around midnight. A convoy of cars snaked into town, carrying dozens of gangsters wearing hoods and armed with machine guns and explosives. The gang sealed off the town by torching a vehicle in a tunnel and blocking roads. They took some laborers hostage and made them sit in the middle of the street to stop police coming in. They set fire to a truck right outside the gate of the police barracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLESIO SALVARO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: The mayor, Clesio Salvaro, made an online address to his panic-stricken city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALVARO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: "A large-scale, well-planned assault is underway," he said. He urged everyone to stay inside.

CORDEIRO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: "Most people were really frightened," says Cordeiro, the reporter. The gang's target was the Bank of Brazil.

CORDEIRO: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: "A lot of the money from around the area is stashed there," says Cordeiro. When the gang blew open the bank, banknotes were sent flying. Locals scrambled to pick them up off the street. Reports say four people were later arrested with the equivalent of $150,000.

After a two-hour siege, the convoy calmly snaked back out of town, having served Brazil with another reminder of the huge and fundamental threat posed by organized crime.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.