Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s main commercial city, became a war zone on Monday night when around 50 gunmen armed with assault rifles, dynamite and night-vision goggles attacked the headquarters of a private security firm and made off with millions in cash. The thieves killed a security guard during their three-hour assault, which began around midnight and saw cars burnt out and a shootout with the police. No details have emerged about the stolen amount, but Prosegur reportedly had enough space in its vaults to store up to $40 million.
After blowing up part of the Prosegur building, the thieves used remote controls to set off military-grade explosives – enough to take down an entire building – under 16 vehicles in different parts of the city. This included a large truck that was left lying across an international thoroughfare and caused further accidents when several motorcycles failed to spot it in time and crashed into it, local media reported.
In the ensuing chaos and confusion, the robbers managed to flee into neighboring Brazil inside five armored vehicles. Paraguayan authorities suspect the culprits are members of a Brazilian criminal gang that pulled off a similar heist in Pernambuco on February 21. That time, the target was a cash storage company called Brinks, which lost $20 million that day. The Ciudad del Este heist was nearly identical: a surprise attack around midnight using paramilitary techniques.
Videos uploaded by local residents showed a city besieged, under fire and with explosions going off and citizens cowering in the dark, a local outlet reported.
The Prosegur headquarters were under police watch after a tunnel was discovered under the building
“Nothing like this has ever happened in this city. It looks like Syria,” said the prosecutor in charge of the investigation. “They used five vehicles to make their getaway. They set off dynamite and fled toward the bridge that links [Ciudad del Este] with the Paraguayan city of Hernandarias. There were around 50 robbers, who used military-grade weapons and dynamite.”
Ciudad del Este is the commercial heart of the country. Located along the so-called Triple Border, it is a hotspot for drug trafficking between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, and lives off trade with its neighboring countries. Low prices and goods of often questionable origin have made the city a magnet for investors.
The sheer scope of the attack alerted authorities in Brazil, where the Federal Police deployed units on land, air and water. In the meantime, Argentina announced reinforced border controls and offered help from its own police.
It was the Brazilian police, in coordination with Paraguayan forces, who finally located part of the gang in Foz do Iguaçu, where they arrived on two speedboats after crossing the Paraná River. Paraguay’s interior minister confirmed that there was a shootout between law enforcement officials and a dozen gang members, three of whom were killed and four more arrested. The Interior Ministry has posted images of seized weapons and one of the dead gunmen on its Twitter account.
The ministry has also admitted that they were aware that a major heist was in the works, but lacked sufficient evidence regarding the exact day or location to take action.
The Prosegur headquarters had been under police watch since 2015, when a tunnel was discovered under the building.
“They found an L-shaped tunnel going under Prosegur and ending in a house. Two years later, they managed to rob the premises,” said Richard Vera, head of homicide investigations at the Ciudad del Este Police Department. Vera said that the gang was made up of Brazilian and Paraguayan nationals, but declined to confirm whether they were members of Primer Comando Capital (PCC), a group created in the 1990s as a protection unit for convicts serving time in Brazilian prisons, and now particularly active in the São Paulo area.
English version by Susana Urra.