The first siege happened about midnight Tuesday when a convoy of more than 30 men — armed to the teeth with explosives and military-style assault rifles — rolled into Criciúma, a small hamlet in the Amazon region.
There, the horde took the streets hostage for nearly two hours, doing battle with an overwhelmed police force as they targeted a branch of the state-run Bank of Brazil, The New York Times reported.
The gangsters reportedly used innocent people as shields as they detonated explosives that at one point sent a plume of bills flying into the air at the bank, the Times reported.
“It was a surreal scene,” said Clésio Salvaro, the mayor of the city of about 220,000, in a televised interview Tuesday morning. “The city was left in a state of panic.”
Nearly 24 hours later, a similar attack occurred in Cameta, where gunfire crackled throughout the night, according to The Associated Press.
Tactical forces as well as police from other areas scrambled to the town to assist the local police against the bandits.
Authorities later located the criminals’ abandoned truck and found explosive devices inside, according to Para state’s public security secretariat.
Video on social media showed a line of roughly a dozen hostages being led away from a square in the city of 140,000 residents. Local media reported that a military police station was attacked, which prevented local officers from responding.
“They drove around shooting at the police and at the houses. It was a horrible scene to see,” said Junior Gaia, who lives nearby, in an interview with television network Globo News, according to the AP. “We were all laid out on the floor, afraid they would invade the homes.”
The robberies took place at the start of December, when bank coffers are filled in anticipation of employees withdrawing their year-end bonuses, according to Cássio Thyone, a council member of the nonprofit Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. Many Brazilians get an extra month’s salary paid out in December, known as the 13th salary.
“It doesn’t happen without planning,” Thyone told The Associated Press by phone. “It’s another demonstration that everything is planned. They think of the location, and the timing.”
Such attacks are common in Brazil, where gangs are known to regularly target small cities with Andy Griffith-styled law enforcement departments that handle mostly petty crimes.
Samira Bueno, executive director at the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety, said it was still striking to see how police officials were unable to stop the attacks.
“It’s curious to see how unprepared the security forces were to deal with this incident,” she said. “Clearly it was the work of a group that is highly organized and specialized.”
Information provided by The Associated Press and The New York Times was used to develop this report.