Police in Brazil have killed 25 suspects as part of what authorities called an unprecedented offensive against heavily armed bank robbers whose brazen heists have brought several major cities to a standstill.
The alleged criminals were gunned down in the early hours of Sunday in the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais, where police claimed they had been poised to unleash an attack.
A report in the local O Tempo newspaper said the killings took place at two farmhouses in Varginha, a city about 245 miles (395km) north-west of Rio de Janeiro.
“This operation … will go down in history,” the Minas Gerais state security secretary, Rogério Greco, told local radio.
The federal highway police, which took part in the mission, said the group had “a veritable military arsenal” including assault rifles, .50-caliber machine guns, explosives and bulletproof vests.
Layla Brunella, the spokesperson for Minas Gerais’s military police force, said the alleged robbers belonged to Brazil’s “modern-day cangaço” – a reference to the bands of outlaws who roamed the country’s north-eastern backlands in the early 20th century under the leadership of a highwayman called Lampião.
“I can tell you this is the country’s biggest ever operation targeting the ‘modern-day cangaço’,” Brunella said.
Cangaço-style gangs have been responsible for a series of raids in Brazil in recent years, often targeting banks in mid-sized cities in the interior of southern and southeastern states.
In December 2020, gangsters laid siege to the southern city of Criciúma, torching vehicles, kidnapping government employees, blowing up a bank and engaging in a two-hour gun battle as the mayor implored residents to stay off the streets.
In August there was a similar attack in the city of Araçatuba in São Paulo state, as black-clad criminals raided banks before fleeing with hostages strapped to the roofs of their getaway vehicles.
Police claimed that those killed on Sunday had been plotting a similar assault in the coming days before they were tracked down with the help of intelligence.
“Minas Gerais is most certainly not a good place to commit crime,” said Greco, congratulating the security forces for their “sensational” actions.
Supporters of Brazil’s rightwing president, Jair Bolsonaro, celebrated the shootings in bellicose terms. “Today [the police] carried out a historic clean-up,” tweeted Junio Amaral, a police captain turned congressman who is part of a growing number of security agents catapulted into Brazilian politics by public angst over violent crime.
Bolsonaro, a pro-gun populist with significant support in the security forces, was elected in 2018 pledging to use hardline tactics to bring law and order to a country that records tens of thousands of murders each year.
Criminals should “die in the streets like cockroaches”, Bolsonaro declared shortly after taking office, calling for legislation that would provide protection from prosecution to security forces and “upstanding citizens” who shot suspects.
Last year police killed more than 6,400 people, the overwhelming majority young black men. Almost 200 police officers were killed, a 10% rise compared with the previous year.
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