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When a group of armed robbers burst into a Buenos Aires bank on Jan.13, 2006, they immediately grabbed the attention of investigators, seasoned hostage negotiators and media outlets, who broadcast the tense standoff with police throughout Argentina.
But what the terrified customers and police didn’t know was that the bold robbery was merely a carefully crafted distraction to keep investigators' attention away from a much bigger heist going on underneath the bank.
“It’s one of the greatest robberies in history,” Josh Dean, author of “The Great Buenos Aires Bank Heist” told CNBC's “Super Heists” in a new episode airing Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
The crime would become known as the “heist of the century” after the robbers escaped with more than $20 million, leaving police feeling duped.
Authorities would never recover the cash, but the robbery team wouldn’t be able to evade justice for long after a mistake in one suspect’s personal life would unravel the crime and send the culprits to prison.
A Carefully Crafted Plan
Julián Zalloecheverría—one of the men who helped carry out the heist—told “Super Heists” he had always been drawn to the criminal life, first starting out stealing cars because it was “sweet and easy.”
But even after he got nabbed by the police, Zalloecheverría gravitated toward the wrong side of the law.
“Jail was like going to college,” he said. “I received my criminal degree.”
Zalloecheverría became part of the bank robbery plot after he got a call from friend and fellow criminal associate Beto de la Torre to recruit him into the Super Bandas, a group of notorious robbers known for their brazen bank thefts.
“I never thought it could be the biggest robbery,” Zalloecheverría said.
The group of skilled criminals was led by Fernando Araujo, an eccentric man who smoked large amounts of marijuana and watched bank robbery movies to prepare for the larger-than-life heist.
“This guy was different,” Martina Castro, executive producer of “El Verdadero Robo Del Siglo” or “The True Heist Of The Century” told “Super Heists.” “He is not like other thieves in Argentina. He’s not just one of the band of thieves, he’s the mastermind.”
The plan was for the talented crew to hit the Banco Rio, the largest bank chain in Argentina, at a time when distrust in the banking system in the country was at an all-time high.
“Overnight the local currency devalues by an insane amount, people have lost their entire savings, their retirement accounts, but guess what doesn’t get touched? Anything that’s in a safe deposit box,” Castro said of the group’s motivation to strike back and humiliate the banks.
The six-man team planned to break into the bank by gaining access to the basement through the city’s massive sewer tunnels. But to do that, they knew they’d need a massive distraction.
“It’s definitely not just a heist. To get millions of dollars, you’re going to have to spend time inside the bank, which means that the police will come, so then you have to be prepared for how you are going to deal with that,” Dean said in the show.
The team developed a plan to distract police by having some members go directly into the front doors of the bank and take the customers inside hostage, using fake guns. While negotiators were busy trying to secure the safety of the hostages, the rest of the team entered through an elaborate tunnel that went from the sewer system up to the bank, and which had taken Sebastián García Bolster—a thief known as “the engineer”—about eight months to build.
“The whole thing was a commitment, it was a physical commitment,” Dean said.
With a projected take of $20 million, each thief was expected to make about $3.3 million.
Making A Getaway
The day of the robbery, after two years of meticulous planning, the heist went off without a hitch.
While the robbers upstairs were keeping police and the media busy, Bolster had broken into the bank’s basement and given himself and the rest of the crew a strict two-hour time limit to take what they could from the safe deposit boxes before the entire team would disappear back down the tunnel, load the money into inflatable rafts and make a getaway to a nearby manhole where Zalloecheverría was waiting with a getaway vehicle.
Before leaving, Beto de la Torre instructed the hostages to all turn away and told them he’d be back in two minutes, but the robbers never returned and were long gone by the time police realized that they had been duped.
The team got away with more than $20 million.
“There was money everywhere,” Zalloecheverría said. “It was scattered all over the place. We were happy having secured the money.”
Back inside the bank, investigators were trying to sort through what was left behind, but the team’s diversions weren’t over. They had dropped hair they had taken from a beauty shop throughout the scene to distract and overwhelm authorities.
Along the floor, the robbers had left behind their fake weapons and a taunting note that read “Without weapons or grudges, it’s just money not love.”
The robbers also took the various bank cards they had gotten from the security boxes and tossed them off throughout the city, hoping others would pick up the cards and begin to use them.
“Every time somebody uses one at a different location it’s going to trigger an investigation and the cops are going to go waste their resources interviewing people,” Dean said.
The Fatal Flaw
For months it seemed like the culprits would never be caught, until a crew member's personal life brought the whole team down.
“These people may have planned the whole heist to perfection, they may have carried it out to perfection, but what they could never do is know what the others were going to do,” hostage negotiator Miguel Sileo told “Super Heists.”
To learn more about how the team carried out one of the greatest robberies of all time, and what ultimately proved to be their downfall, tune in CNBC's “Super Heists” Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
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