(Updates with Sao Paulo detective’s comment in second paragraph under Submachine Guns subheadline.)
May 22 (Bloomberg) -- To the list of reasons World Cup travelers might want to avoid Brazil’s ATMs add roving gangs of thieves toting dynamite and submachine guns.
“There are ferocious bandits here,” Leonel Rossi, vice president for international affairs at the nation’s travel- agency association, said in an interview in Sao Paulo. “We recommend tourists get money at ATMs in hotels or malls and avoid getting cash in banks on the street.”
Soccer fans are already facing the prospect of hunting among the 160,000 automated teller machines in Brazil for one compatible with their cards, as most remain unlinked to interconnected networks. Those tourists should know spending extra time in front of an ATM might be unwise. Robberies at bank branches and teller machines in Brazil soared to 2,944 last year, up 83 percent from 2011, according to data from the unions for bank and security workers.
Such crimes surged 37 percent in Sao Paulo State, where the World Cup kicks off on June 12, and 42 percent in Rio de Janeiro State, host of the tournament’s final game on July 13. That doesn’t include ATM attacks at locations other than banks.
A Banco Santander Brasil SA branch on the site of a nuclear power plant in Angra dos Reis was one of last year’s targets. On Aug. 21, thieves tied up Veronica Soares, a 24-year-old security guard at the bank, and shot her in the head, according to police. They forced Igor Henrique Batista Alves da Silva, a 22- year-old Santander employee, to unlock the safe, which was protected by a time-delay system. When the mechanism didn’t open immediately, they shot him in the chest, police said. Soares and Silva both died at the scene.
Rising crime at banks and ATMs is the opposite of what happened during the two previous World Cups. South Africa, where the 2010 tournament was held, reduced bank robberies 9 percent in the two years leading up to the event from the combined 2008 and 2009 rate, to 93 incidents, according to police data. Germany registered a decline of 15 percent to 463 cases when it played host in 2006, the data show.
Foreign governments are warning their citizens to be on alert when using ATMs in Brazil. France advised travelers to avoid entirely ATMs that don’t have surveillance, while the U.S. State Department’s website says its citizens should be aware that organized gangs are targeting individuals after watching them withdraw money.
“Robberies and ‘quicknappings’ outside of banks and ATMs occur regularly,” according to the website. “Some victims have been beaten and/or raped.”
Brazil’s national tourism agency expects 600,000 visitors during the World Cup, with two-thirds headed to Rio. Police in the city plan to secure a perimeter around Maracana stadium, where the final match will be held, and will deploy almost 7,000 military police officers, according to an April 10 statement. Another 156 foreign-language-speaking officers will work around the city.
“Brazil will execute a coordinated action between its intelligence and security agencies, including the army, the federal police and state police during the World Cup,” the Defense Ministry, which is leading event security, said in an e- mailed statement. Companies authorized to handle explosives will be checked by numerous military organizations because the material can be used in bank attacks, according to the statement.
Deaths are rising with bank robberies in Brazil, which reported 65 killings last year associated with such crimes, an increase of 14 percent from 2012, according to union data that don’t count perpetrators who are killed. FBI statistics for the U.S., where the population of about 320 million compares with Brazil’s 200 million, show no bank customers were murdered in the U.S. from 2004 through 2011, the most recent data available.
Break-ins at branches and ATMs where no people are present are still the robbers’ favorite target, representing 71 percent of all attacks in Brazil last year, according to the unions, which compiled data from press reports and government statistics.
To obtain access to safes and ATMs, thieves are increasingly using dynamite and other explosives, which they obtain by robbing mines or bribing people who have licenses to deal with such material, according to Ademir Wiederkehr, a director at the bank workers’ union, known as Contraf-CUT.
“Gangs of 15 to 20 people are running across the nation with dynamite to blow up ATMs, and are also using submachine guns to breach armored security vans, especially in cities of fewer than 20,000 people,” Wiederkehr, responsible for bank security at the union, said in a telephone interview.
Brazil should enact reforms that would reduce violent crime against banks, Fabio Pinheiro Lopes, the Sao Paulo police detective responsible for bank-robbery investigations, said in an interview. “It needs to change its penal law, the army needs to control explosives, banks need to reduce the amount of cash in ATMs and police need to be integrated,” he said.
The Brazilian army, which controls production, sales and storage of explosives, said it’s trying to boost fines and encourage legislation to help curb the use of dynamite in bank robberies.
“The explosives used in criminal activities are the result of robbery or embezzlement,” the army said in an e-mailed statement.
Under a 1983 law that regulates new branches, banks must file a security plan with federal police that gives details on security guards and alarms. The companies must also employ either a surveillance camera, a time-delay safe or an armed guard. The options mean some banks are allowed to forgo cameras that could be used in identifying culprits.
The Banco Santander branch at Angra dos Reis, where Soares and Silva were killed last year, didn’t have cameras at the site, which is about 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach. The location had a security plan approved by federal police, and the bank “gave all necessary assistance to the families of the victims,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
Some thieves aren’t deterred even when cameras are rolling. Rolidio Brasil de Souza Gama, known as “the Monster” for the violence he inflicted on his victims, was filmed pushing a gun into a bank worker’s mouth during one of about 70 robberies police say he’s committed since 2007.
“In a single bank attack, he stole 39 million reais” ($18 million), Sao Paulo Police Chief Marco Antonio Desgualdo said in an interview televised by Globo TV in January.
Gama escaped in 2007 from a prison where he was serving a 32-year sentence for bank robbery. Under Brazilian law, he had been given the right to spend part of his day outside the jail, based on good behavior and other factors. With no requirement that he wear a tracking device, Gama fled the first day he was granted the privilege.
Police arrested him again in January, at a beach house about 100 miles from Sao Paulo that he rented to spend the New Year’s holiday with his family.
Some banks aren’t doing enough to crack down on robberies, and don’t comply with legislation requiring minimum security measures, said Jose Boaventura Santos, president of Brazil’s security workers union. Federal police fined 14 banks in March for security irregularities, including Banco do Brasil SA, Itau Unibanco Holding SA, Banco Bradesco SA and Banco Santander.
The industry spent 9 billion reais on security measures last year, up from 3 billion reais in 2003, according to an e- mailed statement from the bank association, Febraban, which said thieves are resorting to dynamite because new security steps are thwarting other strategies.
Explosives used on ATMs have “spread over the country in the past three years, and Febraban and its associated banks are following them with extreme concern,” the group said.
Itau said it appealed the fines levied in March.
The nation’s preparations for the World Cup have been “far from perfect,” Itau Chief Executive Officer Roberto Setubal said in an interview today with Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff at Bloomberg’s Sao Paulo office. “Brazil is much better than that.”
Santander said it’s reviewing the police’s remarks in the case, adding that it complies with all applicable laws regarding security for its branches.
Banco do Brasil, which has the nation’s biggest bank network, invests “significantly” in security and its equipment exceeds what’s required by law, the Brasilia-based company said in an e-mailed statement.
Bradesco declined to comment.
“Under the current legislation, the financial system has a clear responsibility regarding bank security,” Santos at the workers’ union said in a telephone interview. “For workers now it’s more important to discuss and fight for security than wage increases.”