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02.06.2006

Heist!

There was a spectacular bank heist here the day after I moved to Buenos Aires. What I know about it has all come through the thick veil of my rudimentary Spanish, so I'm sure details and entire facts have been embellished to suit my sense of fun, but even in general outline it's a crime straight out of the movies.

On the afternoon of (Friday!) January 13, four gunmen walked into the Banco Rio in Acassuso (part of greater Buenos Aires) and took the staff and customers hostage. There was a tense six hour long siege by the police, expertly handled by the robbers - they let each hostage call home, so that family members showed up at the scene; the calculation was that the police would be more reluctant to storm the building immediately if hostages' relatives were watching. They made sure to release three hostages right away as a gesture of goodwill, but of course the three released included the security guard and police officer already in the building. While one of the robbers stayed on the phone, negotiating with police, the remaining ones got busy cracking open safe deposit boxes. Towards four in the afternoon, the police delivered six pizzas and some bottles of soda, the fruit of all those hours of negotiation, which the robbers passed along to the hostages. And then they went silent.

After about an hour of no contact and no news, an elite police bank-storming squad stormed the bank, only to find a group of bewildered hostages sitting scared in the smoke. There was no trace of the gunmen.

Initially the police suspected that the perpetrators had mixed in with the hostages, and questioned the hostages rather roughly as a result. "The robbers treated us better than the police!", someone complained to the press later. But after intense questioning, two things became clear to the Argentine boys in blue: all of the hostages' stories checked out, and there was also a rather large tunnel leading out of the bank basement.

The tunnel led to an extensive storm sewer system that underlay all of Buenos Aires. Geologists working with the police estimated it must have taken fifteen days or so to dig the tunnel, and that it had been dug within the last three months. The entrance point in the bank was easily disguisable by making a proper arrangement of furniture, one of many reasons the authorities suspected an inside job.

The robbers had unburdened the bank of 600,000 pesos ($200,000 US) and 145 of the largest safe deposit boxes, which officially were not supposed to contain more than fifty thousand dollars each, but unofficially were probably full of things that their owners did not particularly want declared to the Argentine fiscal authorities. The cash and the boxes were floated out either onto the River Plate or to a nearby superhighway in inflatable rubber motorboats - the tunnels were marked with special paint visible only with night-vision goggles - and the eight or so perpetators then departed to take their well-deserved retirement in Brazil or the Carribean. The guns they used turned out to be props. Apart from some rough handling of hostages by police, no one was hurt.

I read about this heist on my second day in the city, sitting in a beautiful jewel of a pastry shop, eating the medialunas (croissants) that they regrettably glaze with sugar here in an attack of confectionary insecurity. Below the newspaper with the heist story was a glossy magazine with a ten-page photo spread on a derelict Diego Maradona attending somebody's wedding. And I knew I'd come to the right country.

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