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Episode 67: El robo (The Robbery)

By Duolingo on Thu 22 Oct 2020

In January 2006, a group of thieves entered a bank in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in what appeared to be just a regular theft. But soon, it became clear that this would be unlike any crime Argentina had ever seen. In part one of our first ever serialized story about one of the most shocking robberies in Latin America, you'll hear from several people who investigated the crime: Journalists Rodolfo Palacios and Maria Ripetta, prosecutor Ariel Apolo, and one of the police officers who arrived on the scene.

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Transcript

Martina: Friday, January 13th, 2006, was a scorching day in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was the dog days of summer, and most of the city was on vacation. But not Rodolfo Palacios, a reporter for a weekly paper that ran on Sundays called Perfil.

Rodolfo: Eran mis primeros meses en ese periódico. Yo escribía para la sección de policiales y era mi pasión. Cada historia que cubría representaba una nueva aventura para mí.

Martina: At 29 years old, Rodolfo had already worked as a journalist for more than a decade. It was the only job he knew, and he was made for it. He was so detail-oriented that, when covering a story, he would take note of how a room smelled, or the color of a person's shoes. And he was dogged. He'd investigate a story for years if it meant getting to the bottom of it.

Rodolfo: Pero yo no estaba solo. En mi sección, yo tenía una excelente relación de trabajo con mi compañera María Ripetta.

Martina: María Ripetta was the same age as Rodolfo. Like him, she had reliable sources in the Buenos Aires police and she knew a good story when she saw one. As the only woman on Perfil's crime beat, she always made sure to project confidence, to gain the trust of some of her more old-school, male colleagues.

María: En esos tiempos no había muchas mujeres en el área. Yo llegué ahí casi por casualidad, pero aprendí a llevar la situación bastante bien. Aunque muchas veces fue difícil y me tocó experimentar mucho machismo en ese mundo dominado por hombres.

Martina: At noon that day, Rodolfo and María were both at their desks, getting ready for a meeting with their editor. Suddenly, a breaking news alert on TV caught their attention. Something about a hostage taking, or una toma de rehenes.

Rodolfo: Era una toma de rehenes. Estaban cometiendo un robo exprés en un banco.

Martina: At first, the robbery barely registered with Rodolfo.

Rodolfo: En ese tiempo, había muchos robos exprés que no duraban más de cinco minutos. Entonces, esto no era nada interesante para nosotros porque en general no iban más allá.

Martina: Rodolfo and María knew this type of hostage situation was usually very brief and only involved a few people. Surely, this would not be real news.But this time the robbers had taken 23 hostages. Hours went by, and Rodolfo grew suspicious. Why was the hostage negotiation taking so long? Could this really be a story?

Rodolfo: ¡Trescientos agentes de policía estaban en el lugar! Eran agentes de las comisarías de la zona, de la provincia de Buenos Aires y del grupo de fuerzas especiales de la policía. La seguridad de los rehenes era la prioridad de las autoridades. Esto era diferente, ya no parecía ser un robo normal.

Martina: It was too early for María and Rodolfo to realize it…but one of the most spectacular robberies in the history of Latin America was already underway.

Bienvenidos and welcome to El gran robo argentino — The Great Argentine Heist, a special serialized season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I'm Martina Castro.

Over the next six episodes, we'll be telling you the true story behind one of the most shocking robberies in Latin America, a sophisticated bank heist that took place in Argentina back in 2006 but continues to captivate people to this day. You'll hear directly from the various people who reported on, investigated, and even committed this crime. Our storytellers will be using intermediate Spanish, and I'll be chiming in for context in English.

Keep an ear out for the Argentine accent: in Argentina, LLs are pronounced "sh," as in "me shamo;" and the Y sounds more like "sh", as in "sho." If you find the accent tricky, you can always skip back and listen again.

Ok, here we go. Episode 1: The Robbery, El robo.

Martina: Minutes after the call came in that a robbery was in progress, police raced to get to the bank. It was in the center of Acassuso, a wealthy residential neighborhood north of Buenos Aires. Acassuso's broad avenues are flanked by trees, manicured gardens, and large townhouses. It's the kind of place where crime seems like something that happens elsewhere. Or as Rodolfo would describe it:

Rodolfo: Acassuso es un barrio de gente de clase media y media alta, muy seguro y tranquilo. En general, hay casas enormes de dos pisos con jardín y piscina. Es un lugar muy diferente a la capital, donde yo vivía y trabajaba.

Martina: Among the 300 agents swarming the streets of Acassuso that day was a 25-year veteran of the Buenos Aires police force. He's asked to remain anonymous for this series, so we'll call him: Officer M. His words will be read by a voice actor.

After decades of making his way up the ranks, Officer M. now led the Investigations Division in Acassuso and the surrounding area. He was in charge of 80 agents, and this robbery was his responsibility.

Officer M.: En esos tiempos, no había muchos crímenes serios en Acassuso. La mayoría de los casos era por robos en las calles, pero sin armas. Era un lugar bastante protegido y seguro.

Martina: Officers at the scene were under tremendous pressure to get the hostages out safely and quickly. Six years earlier, three armed men had broken into another bank, in another town north of Buenos Aires, called Ramallo. Those robbers had also held hostages and, when trying to escape, they used them as shields. The police opened fire, killing a thief and two of the hostages.

Officer M.: Esa toma de rehenes con un final tan terrible fue un evento que perturbó la paz de ese lugar y que aún se recuerda de manera dramática.

Martina: That botched hostage rescue was a national shame, a fiasco that resulted in new police protocols. Agents were now prohibited from opening fire unless the lives of the hostages were in imminent danger. These were the rules Officer M. and his colleagues were now required to follow in this new robbery taking place in Acassuso.

Officer M.: No queríamos ninguna víctima fatal en este robo. Nuestro objetivo era proteger a los rehenes, así que seguimos el protocolo y creamos un comité de crisis.

Martina: Once he arrived on the scene, Officer M. needed a place to set up shop, so he could efficiently give orders to his men, start the negotiations with the robbers, and consult with the prosecution. In Argentina, a prosecutor joins the police at the scene of a crime so they can start gathering evidence for any potential trial.

Officer M.: El único sitio que encontramos fue un supermercado chino que estaba frente al banco. Hicimos un poco de espacio e instalamos una mesa grande y otras más pequeñas. A partir de ese momento, las únicas personas que podían entrar al supermercado eran las que estaban asignadas al caso.

Martina: Inside the supermarket, Officer M. started working alongside special forces, snipers, hostage negotiators, and the prosecutor assigned to the case. Police immediately wanted to identify the bank's potential escape routes, so they asked the city government for maps of the neighborhood. To Officer M.'s irritation, the media, or prensa, arrived a short time later.

Officer M.: En ese momento, empezó a llegar la prensa que supo del robo por Crónica TV, un canal de televisión que cubre las noticias policiales. Muchos camarógrafos y reporteros se acercaron.

Martina: The bank was located on a street corner, flanked by big windows and a glass door. It had a basement, or sótano.

Officer M.: El edificio era pequeño y no tenía muchas puertas. En el primer piso del banco solo había un pasillo que iba hacia el estacionamiento y una escalera que llevaba al sótano. Teníamos todas las salidas cubiertas… Al menos, eso pensábamos.

Martina: Finally, at half past noon, one of the robbers established contact by phone. Here's Officer M.:

Officer M.: Nos llamó por teléfono y parecía estar muy relajado. Dijo que teníamos que estar tranquilos, que todo estaba en orden, que los rehenes pronto iban a salir y que todo iba a llegar a su fin. Pero antes de eso, ellos querían hablar para entregarse y negociar una sentencia sin prisión. No entendíamos cómo podía estar tan calmado bajo esas circunstancias.

Martina: The robber who was talking to the negotiator calmly said that they were trying to rob the safe-deposit boxes…and then, he started commenting on the weather. His voice sounded…off.

Officer M.: Claramente, el hombre se había puesto algo en la boca para distorsionar su voz. De repente, cambió el tono amable a un tono más agresivo y dijo: "Yo puedo hacer un desastre acá. Hace 15 días que estoy libre y no quiero volver a prisión. ¿Quieres otra tragedia como la de Ramallo?".

Martina: The robber on the phone had gone from sounding calm to sounding distressed. He made himself clearly visible through the bank windows, not only to the police but to all of the news cameras. They all watched as he walked in circles or sat atop a counter, legs up. He was dressed in a tailored gray suit.

Back in the newsroom, Rodolfo was watching him too, on TV.

Rodolfo: Los medios de comunicación empezaron a llamarlo "el hombre del traje gris".

Martina: 'The man in the gray suit.' It was a nickname that would stick. At quarter to one Rodolfo watched the thieves on live television as they dragged a few hostages to the door, released them, and then ran back inside.

Rodolfo: La primera persona que salió libre fue el guardia de seguridad del banco. Iba con sus manos en alto. Después dejaron salir a un empleado del banco y a una clienta. Todos se veían muy nerviosos.

Martina: The first hostages to be released were able to reveal some crucial details to the police…like the fact that the robbers, or ladrones, all seemed to be wearing disguises. Officer M. was there to hear their testimony.

Officer M.: Nos dijeron que la mayoría de los rehenes estaban en el piso principal del banco, acostados en el suelo boca abajo. Y que ellos pudieron reconocer al menos a cinco ladrones, todos llevaban puesto algún tipo de disfraz.

Martina: And then, the robbers did something the police really didn't expect: they called Argentina's most popular television channel.

Officer M.: Ellos querían salir en la televisión y decir que la policía no estaba colaborando, pero el canal no quiso sacarlos al aire. Los ladrones dejaron un número de teléfono por si los querían llamar de vuelta, pero eso finalmente nunca sucedió.

Martina: Whatever the intention, this phone call to the media made one thing clear to the police: the thieves were getting desperate. At about 3 p.m. the man in the gray suit called the police again, with a request. Officer M. believed the thieves were about to turn themselves in, since they were surrounded on all sides and had no way out.

Officer M.: Pero no fue así. Él nos pidió unas pizzas. Nosotros le seguimos el juego porque queríamos ganarnos su confianza. Sin embargo, cuando tuvimos la comida en la mano y lo llamamos para decírselo, no nos respondió.

Martina: So there were the police, with multiple pizzas and no one to deliver them to. The robbers had cut off all communication. From the rooftops, snipers struggled to see what was going on inside. Camera crews could no longer locate the man in the gray suit.

María: Todos en la sala de redacción dejamos de trabajar porque estábamos concentrados en el robo que estábamos siguiendo por televisión.

Martina: At the command post, Officer M. and the rest of the rescue team were trying to figure out how to enter the bank. Hundreds of agents cordoned off the nearby streets. By that point, families of the hostages had started to gather outside the police perimeter, desperate for some news. But a few of them had an important update for the police.

Officer M.: Tras cinco horas de robo, el familiar de uno de los rehenes empezó a gritar: "Mi hija me llamó desde adentro del banco para decirme que están bien". Otro familiar dijo: "Me llamó mi mamá para decirme que los ladrones no están, que se fueron".

Martina: This made no sense to Officer M. It was impossible. All the exits were covered. The thieves could not have escaped.

Officer M.: Sin embargo, los rehenes tenían mucho miedo y nosotros no sabíamos con seguridad si los ladrones estaban adentro o no. ¿Y si se estaban escondiendo? ¿Y si habían pretendido ser los rehenes? Dimos la siguiente orden: "¡Nadie se mueve!".

Martina: Even after it became clear that the robbers had vanished, the hostages were still wary to step outside the bank. They weren't alone: police too, were worried there might be some kind of trap. Officer M. believed that it was impossible that the robbers had escaped.

Officer M.: Los expertos en construcción de la municipalidad nos dijeron que no había forma de salir del banco. Los ladrones no se podían escapar. Era simplemente imposible.

Martina: Back in the Perfil newsroom, journalists Rodolfo Palacios and María Ripetta had finally concluded that this hostage situation was not business as usual.

Rodolfo: Hacíamos zapping por todos los canales de noticias para ver las imágenes del banco. Parecía un reality show.

Martina: It was already 6 p.m., more than five hours since the police had first made contact with the robbers. Hostages kept calling from inside the bank, claiming that the thieves had vanished. The police were at a loss. Officer M. and the rest of the rescue team were puzzled.

Officer M.: Nosotros no queríamos entrar. Estábamos seguros de que los ladrones estaban adentro y queríamos evitar una tragedia a toda costa.

Martina: After much deliberation, the rescue team finally made a decision.

Officer M.: Era hora de entrar.

Martina: At 7:15 p.m. Officer M. and the team of agents from the special-forces unit took positions around the bank.

Officer M.: Cuando el jefe dio la señal, un policía rompió la puerta de vidrio del banco y explotó en mil pedazos. Estábamos adentro.

Martina: After bursting inside, the police yelled that it was time for the robbers to turn themselves in. There was no answer. The hostages were chaotically dispersed around the main floor, unharmed but agitated. At that point, Officer M. entered the bank.

Officer M.: Hicimos una inspección rápida, pero meticulosa de los dos pisos y del sótano. El banco era un desastre, estaba lleno de papeles y cosas en el suelo, pero los ladrones no estaban por ninguna parte.

Martina: The special-forces unit was unable to locate the thieves, who seemed to have vanished into thin air. Back at Perfil, editors had finally decided to send María Ripetta to report from the street.

María: Llegué y ya era de noche. El perímetro del banco estaba cerrado. La calle estaba oscura, pero el banco estaba iluminado. Era tarde, pero había muchísima gente. Ese barrio tranquilo ahora era un verdadero caos.

Martina: María caught up with other journalists who were already at the scene. She poked around, trying to understand what was going on inside the police perimeter.

María: Un colega me dijo que aparentemente los ladrones habían roto las cajas de seguridad.

Martina: Safe deposit boxes, or cajas de seguridad are incredibly difficult to break into. It's where wealthy people in Argentina often stash their valuables and cash. This habit developed after the country's 2001 financial crisis, when the government devalued billions of pesos held by people in their savings accounts. Some people lost everything… But anything in safe-deposit boxes was left untouched. In the years since, they had become a popular hiding place for family treasures.

María: Las cajas de seguridad son muy seguras y están muy bien cuidadas. Los clientes guardan sus cosas de valor en esas cajas: ahorros, joyas y papeles importantes. No hay necesidad de declarar los objetos o documentos. El banco no tiene un registro y no conoce exactamente su contenido.

Martina: While police continued their investigation inside the bank, many bank customers began to gather outside, visibly distraught. They feared having lost their cash, jewelry, and other valuables. María tried to find out what she could from them.

María: La gente llegaba desesperada, gritando y llorando. Yo trataba de hablar con ellos, pero era muy difícil porque no sabíamos qué decirles porque nadie sabía bien lo que estaba pasando. ¿Por dónde se habían ido los ladrones? Ese era el gran misterio.

Martina: The police considered the possibility that the thieves were still inside the bank, camouflaged among the hostages. Ariel Apolo, the prosecutor assigned to the case, had been following developments from the command post. Always impeccably dressed in a suit, he was one of the most meticulous and well-prepared prosecutors in Buenos Aires. He had spent decades presenting complex cases. We reached him by phone.

Fiscal: Ante esa situación, nosotros sospechábamos que los delincuentes estaban mezclados como rehenes o víctimas del hecho. Los agentes de policía comenzaron por sacar a los rehenes a un área descubierta de un edificio cercano, donde permanecieron.

Martina: The hostages were all taken to a nearby restaurant, where they were fed and then debriefed by Prosecutor Apolo and the police. They were, understandably, very agitated. Prosecutor Apolo:

Fiscal: Ahí vamos determinando que los autores no estaban entre los rehenes. Eso nos llamó la atención. Nos empezamos a preguntar qué estaba pasando realmente.

Martina: It was a long night for everyone, but both the police and Prosecutor Apolo felt it was essential to question the hostages. They had to be sure that the thieves were not hidden among them. But one by one, the hostage identities checked out. Here's Officer M.:

Officer M.: Cuando interrogamos al último rehén y supimos que no era un ladrón, ya no sabíamos qué pensar. Nuestra principal hipótesis no tenía base, pero nosotros no lo íbamos a dejar así. Teníamos que encontrar a los ladrones e íbamos a trabajar día y noche hasta lograrlo.

Martina: Officer M. could not make sense of the situation. In his entire career, he had never seen a group of thieves just vanish without a trace.

Officer M.: Mientras examinábamos todo el lugar, encontramos algo sospechoso. Los ladrones habían dejado seis armas de forma muy ordenada en el piso. El grupo especializado en armas las analizó.

Martina: When the special forces unit inspected the guns, they were shocked. The guns were fake.

Officer M.: Las armas eran falsas… réplicas. Todos nos miramos sin entender absolutamente nada. ¿Quiénes eran estos ladrones? ¿A qué estaban jugando? Y, peor aún, todavía no teníamos ni idea de cómo se habían escapado.

Martina: In any bank, there may be around 300 safe deposit boxes, which potentially hold much more value than a bank's cash reserves. A bank's clients can store their most valuable belongings there, or bienes: like money, jewelry, art, or important documents.

Officer M.: Las cajas de seguridad son imposibles de abrir porque son demasiado seguras. Los ladrones seguramente habían usado una máquina especial para abrirlas.

Martina: Prosecutor Apolo saw that the robbers had cracked open 145 safe deposit boxes and left them completely empty. But what they had taken, or where they had gone, remained a mystery. He remembers that he asked for an inventory and a copy of the camera recordings from inside the bank.

Fiscal: Lo primero que hicimos fue revelar todo lo que habíamos encontrado en el banco y pedimos que nos dieran las grabaciones de las cámaras de adentro del banco. También pedimos las cámaras de seguridad de locales o viviendas vecinas para determinar las posibles vías de escape de los delincuentes.

Martina: Outside the bank, night had fallen, but journalist María Ripetta was still trying to get some information. It was a difficult assignment.

María: La confusión era muy grande porque teníamos poca información. Sin embargo, de una cosa estábamos seguros: la policía se sentía completamente ridiculizada.

Martina: There was also a question the media began to ask: what was the value of the entire loot, or botín?

María: Aquellos días se publicó que, entre dinero y joyas, los ladrones se habían llevado alrededor de veinte millones de dólares. Realmente una fortuna.

Martina: Twenty million dollars. That was the estimated value of the stolen goods.

By now, all the major news channels had journalists reporting live from the bank. All of Argentina was glued to the TV. Back in the newsroom, Rodolfo Palacios was no exception.

Rodolfo: Al igual que yo, todo el mundo estaba viendo las noticias, sobre todo porque había más preguntas que respuestas.

Martina: Nine hours after the robbers had entered the bank, the police finally found an important clue in the basement, or sótano. Officer M.:

Officer M.: En una de las oficinas del sótano, en donde se guardaban los productos de limpieza y mantenimiento, había cinco armarios con cajones. De los cinco, cuatro estaban perfectamente alineados, uno al lado del otro… Pero uno de ellos no estaba alineado.

Martina: The agents moved the filing cabinet that was out of place and "bam"…there it was…a hole, or agujero.

Officer M.: En la pared detrás del mueble había un agujero de 50 × 30 centímetros. Era la entrada a un túnel.

Martina: Suddenly, Officer M. pointed his flashlight at the hole in the wall and yelled to the other agents: "Wait! Don't move!"

Officer M.: ¡Vi que había una granada en la entrada! ¡Un explosivo! ¡Todo podía explotar!

Martina: To recap — what starts off as a standard bank robbery, turns out to be something wilder than anyone could have imagined. Just five hours after police and reporters arrive on the scene, the thieves seemingly disappear…with 20 million dollars worth of cash and valuables, leaving behind 23 hostages and 6 fake weapons… But that's not all. After hours of searching, police finally find the thieves' escape route: a hole in the wall, accompanied by what looks to be a real grenade…and a strange message…

María: Un policía me dijo que los ladrones habían dejado una nota cerca de las cajas de seguridad. Esa nota cambió nuestra percepción de este increíble robo.

Martina: How did the thieves pull off such a complicated crime? Will police be able to track them down? Or will the journalists beat them to it? That's next time, on El gran robo argentino — The Great Argentine Heist.

The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. You can find all of the episodes and transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producers: Tali Goldman & Alejandro Marinelli
Editor: Catalina May
Managing Editor: David Alandete
Executive Editor: Martina Castro
Mixing: Andrés Fechtenholtz & Martín Pérez Roa
Mastering Engineers: Martín Cruz & Antonio Romero
Sound Designer: Antonio Romero
Original Music: Antonio Romero
Production Managers: Mariano Pagella & Román Frontini