The stunning series of bank robberies happened in Aracatuba, in the state of Sao Paolo, early Monday around midnight.
Authorities said the suspects appeared to have “inside information” about a large amount of money at one location, though they did not say how much cash was stolen. Approximately 15 to 20 suspects were involved in the robberies, they said.
At least three people were killed, including one of the suspects.
“Aracatuba was shaken by highly dangerous criminals who fired thousands of shots,” Col. Rodrigo Arena, the police commander in the city, told reporters.
The spree began with the gang setting laser-trapped explosives at 20 locations throughout the city, Brazil’s Globo News reports. One of those traps exploded a short time later, injuring a 25-year-old cyclist and drawing police to the scene.
The suspects used the explosion as a distraction and proceeded to rob three banks at gunpoint, police said. They also took hostages off the street and tied them to 10 getaway cars before making their escape.
The bank robbers used drones to monitor the police pursuit from the air, and they set cars on fire along their route to slow their pursuers down, authorities said.
Scenes from the getaway circulated widely on social media Monday, as onlookers captured footage of vehicles driving off with people strapped to their hoods and roofs. Storyful has verified the authenticity of the videos but has not been able to determine their original sources to date.
Police say the gang members shot and killed a bystander who tried to record the robbery on his phone.
A woman and a suspect were also killed during the escape, officials said. Five people were injured, including the cyclist, whose feet and fingers were amputated due to the explosion.
It was not clear what happened to the hostages.
Mayor Dilador Borges said he could hear the gunfire from his home early Monday.
“It’s a horrible feeling, a horror,” he told Globo News. “I live a few blocks from the Center. I heard all the shots, following them through videos, I didn’t leave the house.”
Military police were ultimately called in to help with the response.
Three suspects have been arrested but more than a dozen others remained at large on Tuesday morning amid a massive search effort involving hundreds of officers.
Police were still dismantling the bombs that had been set up throughout the city on Tuesday.
Local officials suspended school and halted public transit while the bomb-disposal effort took place.
It’s not the first time a so-called “mega robbery” has happened in Aracatuba. In 2017, a gang blocked the military police barracks and then blasted their way into a private security firm.
Similar raids have taken place in other parts of Brazil over the last year.
— With files from Reuters