RIO DE JANEIRO — Heavily-armed assailants stormed a small city in southeast Brazil early Monday, in a brazen operation to rob banks that included explosives, charred vehicles and hostages that were tied to the roof of cars.
The mayhem in Araçatuba, a city that is home to some 200,000 in São Paulo state, left at least three people dead, police officials said Monday morning. The mayor urged residents to stay home while police experts sought to defuse 14 makeshift bombs that were installed in the downtown area as part of the assault.
Photos and videos residents posted on social media showed several cars with hostages tied to the roof, a chilling tactic that appeared designed to prevent the police from opening fire on getaway vehicles.
The attack was the latest on a small city in Brazil carried out by large, well-trained groups of gunmen who have found it relatively easy to overwhelm local security forces while they ransack banks and businesses overnight.
“It was horrific,” the mayor of Araçatuba, Dilador Borges, said in a televised interview early Monday, noting that the police held their fire once they realized the robbers had tied passers-by to their cars. “The police didn’t come closer because they saw the hostages. The tragedy could have been far worse.”
Capt. Alexandre Guedes, a military police official, said the assailants planted several explosive devices around the city in an apparent effort to imperil a police response. The gunmen also used drones to monitor the police response in real time, investigators said.
As of 10 a.m. on Monday, authorities said at least 10 of the suspected gunmen were in custody. The three dead people included one suspected assailant and two residents, according to the police.
One resident had his legs amputated after he was struck by one of the devices, police said. Capt. Guedes said investigators were trying to determine whether all hostages have been released and whether any gunmen remain in Araçatuba.
“We’re trying to save lives and to defuse these explosives,” he said in a televised interview.
Brazilian news outlets published photos of bank branches in the city that lay in ruins. But there was no estimate of how much the gunmen managed to steal.
The assault was reminiscent of two in the past year that have terrorized similar small cities. Last November, gunmen stormed the city of Araraquara, also in São Paulo state, where they set cars on fire in strategic locations to prevent police officials from responding effectively.
The following month, assailants opened fire on a police station in Criciúma, in Santa Catarina state, where they stole approximately $15 million from a Bank of Brazil regional office.