SAO PAULO, Brazil – Some 1,240 miles from the site of the crime, Brazilian police said Thursday they recovered a small percentage of the $67.8 million in local currency stolen from the Central Bank in one of the world's biggest heists.
But authorities were suspicious that the discovery of 1 million reals, or roughly $434,780, inside a Mitsubishi Pajero SUV that was on a transport truck may be a ruse to misdirect the investigation.
"We were tipped off on Monday by the owner of the car dealership who received cash for the vehicle, something almost no one ever does," federal police spokeswoman Sabrina Albuquerque told The Associated Press by telephone.
Acting on the tip, police stopped the truck used to carry vehicles near the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte (search). A search unveiled the money stashed in the SUV. The stacks of 50 real notes — the same denomination stolen from the bank in the northeastern city of Fortaleza (search) last weekend — were tied with Central Bank wrappers, said Albuquerque.
She said the SUV was bought Saturday afternoon and, hours later, was loaded onto the truck headed for Sao Paulo. The truck's driver and his assistant were being questioned.
Authorities suspect the purchase of the SUV and the truck to transport it could be "a ploy to point investigators in the wrong direction," said Albuquerque. She added that police also were investigating whether two different gangs teamed up to pull of the caper in a "a kind of crime consortium."
On Wednesday, authorities said they had identified some of the thieves and were looking into the possibility the heist was pulled off by the First Capital Command (search), one of Brazil's most notorious organized crime groups. No arrests have been made.
"Several suspects have been identified and we are closing in on them," Albuquerque said without elaborating in order "to not jeopardize the investigations."
The Sao Paulo-based group, better known as PCC, has gained notoriety over the past several years for masterminding bank holdups, kidnappings and violent prison uprisings in several parts of the country.
Another $2,325 in reals, also bound by Central Bank wrappers, was found in a white van parked near the scene of the crime earlier this week.
The money was stolen over the weekend by about 10 men who spent three months digging a tunnel from a house they had rented near the bank in Fortaleza, 1,550 miles northeast of Sao Paulo.
While the amount taken surpassed the $65 million stolen in 1987 from the Knightbridge Safe Deposit Center in London, once recognized by experts as the planet's biggest robbery, it was dwarfed by the theft of $900 million in U.S. bills plus as much as $100 million worth of euros from the Iraq Central Bank in 2003.
The money was not insured, and the Central Bank has said the funds will be replaced by the Treasury, meaning that Brazilian taxpayers will foot the bill.
Central Bank spokeswoman Beatriz Dornelles said they do not insure the money in the vaults because the risks involved are too small to justify the insurance premiums. She said it was "too early to comment" on whether that policy would be changed.
Authorities, meanwhile, continued examining fingerprints and scouring through evidence left behind by the thieves, including shovels, pickaxes, saws, drill and other tools they used to dig the tunnel and cut through the vault's steel-reinforced concrete floor.
Inside the vault, they broke into containers filled with used 50-real notes — equivalent to about $22 — which were apparently transported back through the tunnel by a pulley system attached to a large plastic barrel cut in half.
A forklift used to carry the container was accidentally left by a bank employee in front of the vault's security camera preventing it from recording the theft, Albuquerque said, adding that police are still investigating why the vault's motion detectors and alarms did not function.