|The bank in Fortaleza and (below) police officers examining the tunnel under the vault. (AFP)
Sao Paulo, Aug. 10: A gang in Brazil has pulled off one of historyís biggest bank robberies after tunnelling into the vault of a central bank building and making off with an estimated '38 million.
Officials are still working out how much money was taken after the gang tunnelled 80 metres under neighbouring houses and a high street to come up under the vault of a regional Brazilian central bank office in Fortaleza, Brazilís fifth-biggest city.
Once under the vault, the gang cut a hole through the 1.1-metre-thick steel and reinforced concrete floor of the 500 square metre strongbox.
Officials found the hole in their vault when the office was opened on Monday morning after having been shut all weekend. Five containers in the safe had been opened and emptied of about 3 million banknotes.
The haul weighed about 3 tonnes and was composed of used 50 real (Brazilian currency) banknotes, worth about '12.50 each.
Despite the huge amount of money involved, the robbers got away cleanly as no alarm went off and no hostages were taken during the raid. Police have already extended their search for the gang beyond Ceara, the northeastern state of which Fortaleza is the capital.
The money taken had been withdrawn from circulation for testing and the bank planned to destroy notes in poor condition and put the rest back into circulation.
Made up of used, non-sequential and commonly accepted banknotes, the robbersí haul is virtually untraceable.
Police and an internal bank investigation will focus on how the gang managed to bypass the bankís alarm system and the movement sensors in the vault. Cameras in the bank are said to have recorded nothing unusual after the office closed at 6 pm on Friday.
The police will also examine if the gang received inside information from someone connected to the bank.
The tunnel used by the gang was traced by police back to a house one street away from the bank. The house had been rented since April to several men who had set up and run a landscape gardening company from it.
Called Synthetic Lawns and supposedly specialising in natural and artificial garden lawns, the company acted as a front for the menís activities in the house.
The police suspect that the gang chose a landscaping business to help to explain the movement of large amounts of earth from the property. The tunnel running from the house was 4 metres below street level, had 70 cm of headroom and was propped up with wooden supports and sandbags.
It was also fitted out with plastic sheeting, electric light and air conditioning for the comfort of the tunnellers. The robbers left behind cutters, an electric saw, drills and a blow torch.
Up to 10 men who are believed to have frequented the rented house are being sought in connection with the raid.
Local residents said the men had been friendly and several of them used to have lunch and after-work drinks in local bars in the months leading up to the robbery.
They added that they did not believe that the men were from the Fortaleza region, with people saying the menís accents indicated they were possibly from Rio de Janeiro.
In recent years assaults on Brazilian banks have fallen because of improved security and many bank robbers instead turned to kidnapping as a less lucrative but less riskier option.