The “Robbery of the Century”: The biggest Brazilian forensic genetics case

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Fonte: ELSEVIER / Forensic Science International: Reports

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Abstract
In the early hours of April 24, 2017, an audacious robbery took place in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Burglars, heavily armed and with explosives, heisted the cash-transit company Prosegur office and stole about $ 11.7 million. The robbery had several developments, related crime scenes and suspects arrested. Crime scene traces and suspect reference materials were collected by Brazilian federal forensic experts, aiming to obtain genetic profiles to confirm the arrestees’ connection to the crime scene and to supply the National DNA Database (BNPG) for comparisons and eventual new identifications, in order to assist the investigation. All materials were sent to the Brazilian Federal Police Forensic DNA Laboratory. The investigation culminated in the collection of 457 pieces of evidence, making this the largest case ever received by this forensic DNA laboratory. At the end of the process, almost 580 samples were obtained and analyzed, many of them in the first 10 days after receiving the materials. In total, 47 profiles were uploaded into the database, 11 of which with identified sources. In National and in Federal Police DNA Databases, 17 profiles matched others from 21 unrelated crime scenes, with seven more individuals identified. These hits linked the Prosegur burglary in Paraguay to crimes in six different Brazilian states between 2013 and 2020. All these crimes, among others of federal or state jurisdiction, were carried out by one large criminal organization that has been fought with the help of forensic genetics through the Brazilian National DNA Database. The investigation of this crime, based mostly on evidence obtained from DNA, has been internationally recognized and now serves as proof of the forensic genetics’ efficiency in property crime resolution, something important in the current context of Brazilian legislation.

1. Introduction
The “robbery of the century”. That was how the heist of the cash-transit company Prosegur in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, on April 24, 2017, became known. Dozens of burglars, heavily armed and with explosives, broke into the building and stole about US$ 11.7 million [1].

That night, the city was under siege for hours. Burning cars blocked the main accesses to Ciudad del Este, including the Friendship Bridge, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay, while armed criminals were strategically placed closing off a security perimeter, firing against the Paraguayan National Police and spreading panic among the local population. At the same time, another group was blowing up the Prosegur branch office wall to reach the safe and steal a large sum of cash. A Paraguayan police officer was killed during the robbery.

The region where the crime occurred has a Tripartite Command, established in 1996, which formalizes cross-border police cooperation between the cities of Puerto Iguazu (Argentina), Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil) and Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) [2]. This makes it possible to exchange information and execute police actions in the area between the three cities.

After the crime, there was rapid articulation between the border countries through the Tripartite Command. Police investigation information and the modus operandi used in the robbery, known as “city domination”, pointed to the involvement of the largest and most violent Brazilian criminal organization group in the act and that several of its members would probably have returned to Brazil.

In fact, part of the suspects fled through the shores of Itaipu lake and crossed the border towards Brazil with the support of boats in the region near the city of Itaipulândia-PR (Paraná State), where they were surprised by Brazilian Federal Police officers in the middle of the woods on the banks of the lake. There were clashes in two locations on the lake and, from then on, a task force started between the Federal Police and all other Brazilian security forces in the region (Federal Highway Police, Military Police, Civil Police and Municipal Guard), which led to the dispersion of criminals into smaller groups. Some individuals hid in the region and others stole vehicles to be used in the escape. Much of the material carried by them, such as bags with clothes, pouches with money, weapons, ammunition, accessories and even a.50 caliber machine gun, was abandoned and later seized by police. In São Miguel do Iguaçu-PR, there was a new confrontation during a chase by the Brazilian Police, when three fugitives were killed (among them, the Individuals A and B) and two others were injured (one of which, the Individual C).

Some criminals carried out kidnappings during the escape. One of them (Individual D) kidnapped a family at their residence in the rural area of Itaipulândia-PR, forcing them to take him to the bus station to continue his escape. However, he was arrested in a Military Police barrier installed at one of the cities nearby, Cascavel-PR. Other thieves kidnapped a group of construction workers in the city of Santa Helena-PR, who were forced to take them to the city of Cascavel-PR in a Minibus vehicle. One of the hijackers (Individual E) was arrested at a barrier of the Federal Highway Police when he was trying to escape by bus towards the capital of the state, Curitiba.

Also, during police patrols on countryside roads and in small towns of the region, the Individuals F, G, H and I, among others, were found and taken to be interrogated at the Federal Police Station in Foz do Iguaçu-PR.

From information obtained by the Paraguayan National Police, it was also possible to quickly identify the location of a house in Ciudad del Este that had been used by criminals as “headquarters” in that country.

Through the Tripartite Command, the Paraguayan National Police requested the cooperation of the Brazilian Federal Police to carry out the crime scene examination at the “headquarters”, aiming to search for traces that could identify the perpetrators. Federal forensic experts from the Federal Police Station in Foz do Iguaçu-PR, with the support of the Paraguayan National Police, collected almost 200 traces in that house. Crime scene examinations at the Prosegur branch office were also carried out by Federal Police experts at their request.

As was said, the investigative team managed to detain some suspects. However, the maintenance of their arrests depended on confirmation of their participation in the crime, that is, the connection of these individuals to the location of the events. Suspects’ reference biological materials were collected and sent to the Brazilian Federal Police Forensic DNA Laboratory at the National Institute of Criminalistics, in Brasília-DF (Federal District).

At the same time, the Police Commissioner asked the judicial authority for permission to insert the genetic profiles of those suspects in the Brazilian National DNA Database (BNPG), as required by Brazilian legislation. The request was granted.

Some of the suspects, as will be discussed in this article, were quickly linked to the robbery and held in prison after their profiles were directly compared with those obtained from biological traces collected at the crime scenes described above: the “headquarters”, the Prosegur branch office, the clashes sites near Itaipu lake and the stolen vehicles later seized by police.

2. Brazilian Integrated Network of DNA Databases and Relevant Legislation
Forensic genetics, like many other forensic sciences, is based on a comparative examination. Therefore, the genetic profiles of suspects presented by the investigative team can be directly compared with the genetic profiles derived from biological crime stains of the case in question. But when there are no suspects, a possible tool for the investigation is the use of DNA database [3], [4], [5].

Brazil has an Integrated Network of DNA Databases (RIBPG). This network, first proposed in 2002, was established in 2013 with the aim of sharing and comparing genetic profiles contained in the DNA databases of the States, the Federal District and the Federal Police [6].

RIBPG is coordinated by a Steering Committee [7] made up of five representatives from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, a representative from the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights and five representatives from the States or the Federal District (one representative of each geographic region of the country). This committee has two permanent commissions (“Quality Commission” and “Interpretation and Statistics Commission”), which are formed by specialists who analyze technical issues and provide inputs for the Steering Committee’s decisions. In addition, the Committee has four permanent guests, representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Brazilian Bar Association and the National Research Ethics Commission.

Currently, RIBPG has one national database and twenty-two local databases [8]. These are in the Federal Police and in 21 States/Federal District criminalistics institutions that have a fully functioning forensic DNA laboratory. They can share genetic profiles at the interstate level through the periodic upload to National DNA Database.

Since 2011, two years after signing of the letter of agreement between the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) of the United States of America and the Brazilian Federal Police to grant CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) license, local laboratories store in DNA databases the genetic profiles obtained from crime traces [9]. This has always been key to connecting different crime scenes. The databases can also receive reference profiles, both from suspects and convicted offenders. The inclusion of this last category of profiles, however, was only possible as of 2012, the year in which Law 12,654 was enacted. Law 12,654/2012 changed two other legal provisions: Law 12,037/2009 [10] and Law 7210/1984 (a.k.a. Law of Penal Execution – LEP) [11]. With regard to Law 12,037/2009, the criminal identification through the genetic profile became possible by judicial authorization. Regarding the Law 7210/1984, Law 12,654/2012 implemented the mandatory collection of samples from offenders convicted of heinous crimes or intentional crimes committed with violence or serious threat to life [12]. Later, both laws were again amended, this time, by Law 13,964/2019, known as the Anti-Crime Law [13], as will be discussed.

3. Methods
3.1. Crime Stains and Reference Materials Analysis
The robbery of the Prosegur branch in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, had several developments right after the attack and in the following days, resulting in more than a dozen crime scenes interconnected by the sequence of events and / or by investigation information. There were more than ten vehicles stolen during the escape of criminals and then abandoned, later seized by police, many bags and apparel discarded at shootings sites in the vicinity of Itaipu lake, and later apprehended for examination, the explosion site at the Prosegur branch office and the property used as “headquarters” by the criminals.

The large number of crime scenes required the action of many Brazilian federal forensic experts at the same time in several locations in order to avoid possible loss of evidence. The investigation culminated in the collection of 457 pieces of evidence, making this the largest case ever received by the Brazilian Federal Police Forensic DNA Laboratory until 2021.

Given the large amount of materials received by the laboratory, all the DNA experts worked together to analyze the largest number of crime stains and reference materials in the possible shortest time. Two experts were dedicated to process reference materials. A laboratory benchwork team, responsible for all workflow from extraction to amplification, processed the samples generated by the sampling team and promptly delivered the raw data obtained to the experts for analysis and writing of reports, as previously stated [14].

The pieces of evidence were sampled by the experts in sets of 50–100 traces, starting with the traces most likely to generate genetic profiles, such as substrates with saliva, blood or semen. Every single item received by the Federal Police Forensic DNA Laboratory was examined, resulting in at least one sample from each. At the end of the process, 577 samples were obtained and analyzed, many of them in the first ten days after receiving the materials.

Of these samples, less than half presented DNA in sufficient quantities to generate genetic profiles. In total, 240 genetic profiles were obtained by DNA amplification with GlobalFilerTM PCR Amplification kit (Applied Biosystems) or Powerplex® 16 HS System (Promega).

As the laboratory keeps receiving reference materials of suspects, so far, 68 genetic profiles of suspect individuals have been obtained and compared with trace profiles.

3.2. Genetic Profile Analysis
To manage all the data obtained, in order to analyze all 240 stain profiles, compare the interpretable ones to identify unique profiles and to detect matches, an internal database exclusive to this case was created. Current casework interpretation criteria, according to the technical parameters stablished by internal validation tests, were applied. The profiles were deemed interpretable when the designated alleles could be assigned to a single person, a two-person mixed with or without a major component, or a greater than two-person mixed profile with an unambiguously major contributor.

It was possible to distinguish 44 different single source DNA profiles (originally unitary or major / minor components of mixture profiles, hereinafter referred to only as “single source”) and three mixture DNA profiles with quality for comparisons and to be uploaded to DNA databases.

As determined in the Operating Procedures Manual of the Brazilian Integrated Network of DNA Databases, the genetic profile must meet some criteria to be inserted at National DNA Database. Profiles had to be single sourced and have a minimum of eight CODIS core STR markers. The mixture profiles, even with at least eight STR markers and having no more than two contributors, remained at Federal Police DNA database for not meeting quality requirements for National DNA Database entry [15], [16].

As will be shown, every different stain profile that didn’t match a suspect’s profile at first were identified as “Profile + sequential numbering” to facilitate comparisons and the citation of them in reports.

4. Results
4.1. Biological traces and substrates x DNA yield and quality
The 457 pieces of evidence collected during this investigation form a varied set of biological traces and substrates. For example: epithelium tissues, blood, saliva, semen, hair and feces deposited on substrates such as tools, vehicles, cigarette butts, cups and bottles, clothing and shoes, bed linen and towels, personal items and toiletries, among others.

Wearer DNA, mainly from clothing, balaclavas and bath towels, were 47% of the 577 samples obtained from the evidence collected. About 23% of the samples were buccal epithelium and / or saliva, collected mostly from cigarette butts, cups and bottles. Near 22% of the samples analyzed corresponded to “touch DNA”, collected from objects handled, such as tools and vehicles.

Approximately 42% of the samples obtained presented enough DNA to generate genetic profiles, according to the technical parameters in place in the laboratory, totaling 240 samples. That was so for 43.5% of the samples of wearer DNA, 36% of the samples of “touch DNA” and about 50% of the samples of blood or buccal epithelium/saliva.

Of the samples that presented enough amplifiable DNA, 49.2% were collected from wearer DNA substrates, 27.5% were buccal epithelium/saliva and 18.8% were “touch DNA”. Less than 3% were blood.

About 57.5% of the samples amplified resulted in genetic profiles suitable for interpretation and eligible for comparisons, totaling 138 profiles, being 88.4% from wearer DNA (47.8%) or buccal epithelium/saliva samples (40.6%). The overall DNA profiling success rate in relation to the total samples obtained was 23.9%.

In addition to blood, with few samples, the biological trace that most resulted in genetic profiles with good quality was buccal epithelium/saliva samples. Almost 85% of the amplified samples of buccal epithelium/saliva DNA resulted in suitable profiles (42.7% of the samples obtained). The second-best biological trace was wearer DNA, with approximately 56% of profiles suitable for comparisons (24.4% of the samples obtained). The results described above are shown in Table 1 and Fig. 1.

Table 1. Distribution of samples by stage per type. The results are presented in absolute values and as a percentage at each stage. The overall DNA yield and profiling success rates in relation to the total samples obtained and (*) in relation to the amplified samples are shown.

Profile 30 was later discarded for not meeting current quality requirements for DNA database entry and replaced by a mixture profile in which Profile 30 is a component [Mixture Profile 3]. This mixture profile now remains at Federal Police DNA Database. In November 2020, one of the contributors to Mixture Profile 3 was identified, when the profile of Individual J was uploaded to the National DNA Database through Federal Police DNA Database in compliance with Law 12,037/2009, that provides for the criminal identification through the genetic profile by judicial authorization. He was arrested for the heist of a security van owned by the cash-transit company Brinks at the airport of Campinas-SP (São Paulo State) in October 2019. In BNPG, the profile of Individual J matched others from four different crimes scenes: a vehicle theft, on April 4, 2016, in Santo André -SP; a robbery of a security van owned by Brinks in Jacareí -SP, on November 21, 2017; an attempted theft of the cash-transit company Protege in Suzano-SP, on January 22, 2018; and a heist of three security vans owned by Brinks at the airport of Blumenau-SC (Santa Catarina State), on March 14, 2019. These last three crimes scenes had one 2nd profile each that matched another stain profile from the robbery of Prosegur in Paraguay [Profile 18, Mixture Profile 2 and Profile 31], as shown in Table 2 and ahead in this article.

Beyond Mixture Profile 3, 13 more profiles obtained from the crime stains collected in the HQ matched profiles from other federal and state cases.

Profile 18 linked the robbery of Prosegur in Paraguay to a prison escape in São Paulo, on December 8, 2014; to a burglary of the cash-transit company SERVI-SAN in Teresina-PI, on December 10, 2016; and to the robbery of a security van owned by Brinks in Jacareí -SP, on November 21, 2017 (crime scene that also matched Mixture Profile 3). The identical profiles obtained from pieces of evidence collected at those crime scenes had the source identified in February 2021 after the profile of Individual K was uploaded to the National DNA Database in compliance with Law 7210/1984.

Profile 31 matched one from a false ambulance used in the heist of three security vans owned by Brinks at the airport of Blumenau-SC, on March 14, 2019. This crime in Blumenau, as mentioned, was also connected to the robbery of Prosegur in Paraguay through Mixture Profile 3.

One profile from the “headquarters” [Profile 11] linked the Prosegur case to the murdering of a federal prison officer in Cascavel-PR, having occurred on September 2, 2016, and to an ATM explosion site in Campo Grande-MS (Mato Grosso do Sul State), having occurred on October 11, 2017, which had been investigated by state forensic experts. These identical profiles had the source identified in March 2019, when the profile of Individual L was uploaded to the National DNA Database in compliance with Law 12,037/2009. He was arrested in December 2018, suspected of being responsible for the explosion of the wall of a State Penitentiary in Piraquara-PR, allowing 29 prisoners to escape, in September 2018. Later, it was discovered that Individual L was the leader of the execution mission of the prison officer in Cascavel-PR.

Another one from the “headquarters” [Profile 2] was also found inside a house that was used in 2019 by members of the same criminal organization pointed as responsible for the heist of Prosegur in Paraguay. The source of these profiles – Individual M – was identified in March 2020 as his profile was uploaded to BNPG in compliance with Law 12,037/2009. This individual is a main suspect in a cargo theft of gold, silver, rough emerald, watches and a luxury necklace with the estimated value of $ 28 million in Guarulhos Airport-SP on July 25, 2019.

Most profiles detected at the HQ are connected to other felonies to cash-transit companies or banks. Among them, one [Profile 32] could be pinpointed in up to six different crime scenes between February 2014 and February 2020. Here we have an individual who participated in robberies of two gas stations in 2015 in São Paulo-SP, of a bank in 2014, also in São Paulo-SP, one bank in 2018 in Bauru-SP, another bank in 2020 in Telêmaco Borba-PR and, of course, the Prosegur in Paraguay. He has not yet been identified.

The robbery of a bank in 2018 in Bauru-SP, in addition to match Profile 32, presented two other profiles that matched Profiles 5 and 6 from the robbery of Prosegur in Paraguay. The same case presented a fourth profile that indirectly linked it to a bank robbery in the state of Rio Grande do Norte on January 30, 2017. The source of Profile 5 was identified in April 2021 when the profile of Individual N was uploaded to the National DNA Database in compliance with Law 12,037/2009. He was arrested in March after being on the run for more than 20 years.

Profile 25 has not yet matched any other crime stain profile in DNA databases. However, its source was identified in October 2020 after the profile of Individual O was uploaded to the National DNA Database in compliance with Law 12,037/2009. He is, together with Individual M, suspect of being an organizer of the cargo theft of gold, silver and jewelry in Guarulhos Airport-SP on July 25, 2019.

The theft of a bank agency in Criciúma-SC on November 30, 2020 was the last crime linked to the Prosegur case until the closing of this article. The match with Profile 14 was detected in the National DNA Database.

4.2.2. Bags and backpacks abandoned during escape near Itaipu lake
When suspects fled through the shores of Itaipu lake and crossed the border towards Brazil in an attempt to escape and were surprised by police officers, they abandoned many bags and backpacks. These materials were seized after the clashes and sent to the Criminalistics Unit of the Federal Police in Foz do Iguaçu-PR, resulting in the collection of almost 100 pieces of evidence. Examination of these materials gave rise to 10 different genetic profiles, six of which were sent to the National DNA Database. They matched five suspects [Individuals C, E, F, G and I], three of them also identified among the crime stains found in the HQ. One genetic profile did not have its source identified and therefore received a unique identifying number [Profile 23]. The other four profiles were identical to those obtained in the HQ and /or the branch office and already inserted into BNPG [Profiles 5 (Individual N), 15, 18 (Individual K) and 25 (Individual O)].

One of the profiles obtained matched the oldest case of all described here, the robbery of the cash-transit company Protege on October 8, 2013, in Suzano-SP, and whose source – Individual E – was arrested due to the Prosegur robbery in Paraguay. This event in Suzano will be discussed later on.

4.2.3. Prosegur branch office in Ciudad del Este/PY
Material collected at this location gave rise to five different genetic profiles. Of these, two were identical to suspects profiles [Individuals C and E] already connected to the other crime sites described above and one was identical to Profile 5 (Individual N), obtained from the HQ and from Itaipu lake, already inserted into BNPG. Two profiles did not have their sources identified nor matched others from the case and therefore received unique identifying numbers [Profiles 27 and 28].

Profile 28 matched one from the theft of a bank agency in Criciúma-SC on November 30, 2020, the last crime linked to the Prosegur case until the closing of this article.

4.2.4. Vehicles
Some vehicles used by criminals during the escape were seized by the police. Among these, eight vehicles were found by police in Brazil and several others in Paraguay. The materials collected inside them were also sent to the Federal Police Forensic DNA Laboratory for sample analysis.

Examination of these pieces of evidence resulted in nine different single source profiles and two mixture profiles with quality to be uploaded to DNA databases. Of these, two profiles (one single source and one mixture) matched arrested suspects (Individuals X and Y) that were not identified in traces collected at the other crime sites described above. The remaining eight single source genetic profiles did not have their origin identified, five of which received unique identifying numbers to be uploaded. The other three profiles were identical to others already obtained in the HQ and /or the branch office and / or Itaipu lake.

The second mixture profile matched one single sourced obtained from an piece of evidence collected in a vehicle related to the attempted robbery of the cash-transit company Protege in Suzano-SP, on January 22, 2018, a crime scene examined by the Scientific Police of São Paulo State. These identical profiles matched the Individual P, identified in another criminal investigation and whose profile was sent to the National DNA Database in compliance with Law 12,037/2009. This individual was arrested on the investigation of robberies of private banks in Passos-MG, on April 11, 2018. That investigation had also a match with the burglary of the office of Prosegur in Santos-SP on April 4, 2016, that is probably connected to the vehicle thefts in São Bernardo do Campo and Santo André -SP on the same date (Mixture Profile 3 and Profiles 6 and 8 on Table 2). Individual P also participated in the heist of three security vans owned by Brinks at the airport of Blumenau-SC, on March 14, 2019. He was driving the false ambulance from which one profile matched Profile 31 above mentioned.

4.2.5. Suspects
In the scope of this crime investigation, reference material analysis led to genetic profiles of 68 individuals through the DNA testing described here. Among them, 24 had their genetic profiles uploaded to the National DNA Database in compliance to court orders, 12 of which (Individuals A to J, L and N) connected to at least one location of these events through the DNA analysis here exposed.

Until July 2021, 16 individuals have been linked to this case through DNA exams. Of these, four were identified through matches that occurred in DNA databases, whether National or Federal, as they were criminally registered for other crimes (Individuals K, M, O and P).

Note: As investigations progressed, Individuals X and Y were disregarded as suspects in the Prosegur theft because there were, a priori, no elements of connection with this specific crime. The stain profiles that matched theirs remain in the DNA Databases, though.

To date, about 60 forensic DNA reports directly related to this crime investigation have been issued. In total, testing resulted in 44 different single source profiles, 14 of them matching with suspects, and three mixture profiles, matching two other suspects. In National and in Federal Police DNA Databases, 17 stain profiles matched others from 21 unrelated crime scenes, in a total of 30 forensic hits. These hits linked the Prosegur robbery in Paraguay directly to crimes in six different Brazilian states between 2013 and 2020. Table 2 presents a summary of the genetic profiles obtained, their sources (when identified) and matches with other genetic profiles inserted into National and Federal Police DNA Databases.

As can be seen in Table 2, through the analysis of the matches registered by the Federal Police or the National DNA Database, this criminal organization is specialized in crimes against cash-transit companies, security vans and ATMs, always using heavy weapons and explosives.

Fig. 2 shows the geographic distribution of the profiles generated during this investigation, as well as the profiles from other crimes whose connections have been identified through the National and Federal Police DNA Databases. The connection between crimes that occurred in other Brazilian states, located thousands of kilometers from the Paraguayan border demonstrates the level of national activities of this criminal organization. The map was prepared using Federal Police geolocation tools [17].

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Autores:

Ronaldo Carneiro da Silva Junior
Aline Costa Minervino
Ana Paula Vieira de Castro
Jeferson Loureiro Badaraco
Giovani Vilnei Rotta
Emerson Antonio Rodrigues

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