Brazil's missing millions

How a three million dollar find changed the lives of villagers - for the worse.


    The plane was carrying the money on behalf of
    Brazilian banks
    It was like a script from a Hollywood film.

    A small plane carrying millions of dollars in cash crashes right in the middle of a poor village in a remote corner of the world.

    But this was no movie – this is what actually happened in the north-eastern Brazilian village of Maracangalha, and the event has since sparked a missing money mystery that provided an unhappy ending for the villagers.

    The mystery began last year when a small plane, operated by a private security company on behalf of a Brazilian bank, transported about 5.56 million Reals in cash, the equivalent of about $3,300,000, across Brazil's Bahia state.

    The plane encountered mechanical difficulties and crashed near the village, killing the three people on board and releasing a cloud of banknotes.

    Three million dollars is a lot of money for anyone, but even more so when you consider many of the people of Maracangalha do not have running water and earn less than $100 a month as labourers on nearby farms.

    When a local radio station reported the incident, people descended on the village in droves almost immediately, collecting as much of the money as they could find.

    Thieves arrive

    But any excitement the villagers had for their good fortune quickly turned to despair and fear.

    "We had thieves, police, media, everyone here," Wanda dos Santos, a villager, told Al Jazeera.

    Jorge Dos Santos says people were
    beaten by thieves looking for the money
    "Nobody knew if it was the police, the criminals – [we did not know] who was who. Someone entered my house at 11pm looking for money. They took my son, grabbed him, broke his arm. And they didn't find any money because I did not have any."

    Rosana Bianchi, the judicial investigator on the case, told Al Jazeera: "The people of Maracangalha were vulnerable, because when news was out, groups of thieves, police officers, people who claimed they were police officers, all went there to recover the money."

    One villager was shot dead and locals say it was an outsider who killed the man, thinking he might be hiding cash.

    The police eventually took action, sealing off the area and carrying out aggressive door-to-door searches.

    Cash was found buried in back yards, hidden in ovens and under mattresses.

    Police – and police impersonators - took all they could find from the villagers.

    "Some of the police got into people's houses and beat them up looking for money," according to Jorge Santos, a local resident.

    "They threatened them. The thieves threatened them too. People who live here don't like to talk about it anymore."

    One year on

    Today, more than a year since the crash locals say any money they found was quickly taken back by police or stolen from them by criminals in the days following the crash.

    "Whoever took all the money has gone to hell," said Wanda dos Santos.

    "They don't live here anymore, or never lived here in the first place. Anyone who was driving by here that day just took money and left – and now we are still here stuck with the consequences."

    Today, many local villagers remain bitter and resentful of the situation thrust upon them.

    And most here remain desperately poor.

    "If I had the money, I would not be picking up rain water outside my house to boil my beans," Wanda dos Santos said.

    Disappearing money

    However, only 10 per cent of the cash has ever been recovered.

    "Someone sent that plane was the heavens to curse us ... it has harmed the lives of every single person who lives here"

    As well as the police, investigators also suspect that people from a nearby encampment of land rights activists, known as the MST, may have taken some money.

    But the activists abandoned their encampment shortly after the accident and can no longer be located, according to Bianchi.

    For the people of Maracangalha it remains a strange and painful experience – their once quiet village still turned upside down in the most unimaginable way.

    "Before we lived comfortable here – nobody bothered us," said one elderly man in the village who refused to give his name.

    "But after that plane crashed it's been like a plague, or a curse.

    "Someone sent that plane was the heavens to curse us. It has harmed the lives of every single person who lives here."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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