Wednesday, April 22, 2009

24 Hours of Terror: The Los Mochis Bank Heist

Onlookers crowd the armored truck where the assailants escaped on April 21, 1988 in Los Mochis. 4 people were killed, 12 injured in the notorious bank heist.

Wednesday April 20, 1988
Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico

Its 12:25 pm. Inside the Banco Nacional de Mexico (Banamex) bank long lines of customers await to deposit or withdraw money.

A young woman named Rosi Padilla stands near the glass doors, smiling and greeting the customers who enter the bank and informing them of the new Invermático ATM machines that Banamex will soon be adding to this branch.

On the other side of the building, bank co manager Manuel Sandoval is helping a customer.

It seems like everything is peaceful; customers and bank employees proceed with their transactions. More than 50 people fill the building, busy as many take advantage of their lunch hours to go to the bank.

5 minutes later, the peace of another routine business day at the bank ends. All hell breaks loose.

Exactly at 12:30 pm, 6 men enter the bank violently brandishing guns and yell "This is a hold up! Nobody move!"

Only a few listen to the robbers. The rest of the people run away, desperately searching for an exit; the men are blocking the main doors. They stop running when they hear a gunshot from a .38 caliber pistol.

"Nobody freak out!" yells the man who pulled the trigger, shooting his gun in the air. The rest of the gunmen take small groups of customers and employees and push them into the restrooms.

Rosi Padilla the smiling cashier at the door is still standing, petrified as she sees the men yelling and threatening to kill anyone who gets in their way.

One of the robbers notices that she doesn't move, looks at her in the face and shoots her in the chest. The young woman falls backwards spitting blood and with her bright eyes wide open as if asking "Why me?".

The bank robbery has claimed its first victim. The robber doesn't flinch as he watches Rosi die on the marble floor.

The story being told is real. Its the story of the most violent and dramatic bank heist in the history of the state of Sinaloa. For 24 hours, Mexico and the world watched as 6 men held dozens of hostages, threatening to kill them and blow up the bank. The ending to the ordeal was an embarrassment to a city and to a whole state. It happened when future Presidential candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa was governor of the state and Ernesto Alvarez Nolasco was mayor of Ahome, Sinaloa.

It was planned on March 25. That day, Mario Valdez, Ivan Camarena, Ramon Terrazas "The Frog", Gilberto Valenzuela, Catarino Felix and Guillermo Gonzalez met at a house to plan the heist.

After agreeing on the type of weapons to use, they chose the date: April 20th. 12:30 pm, the time the Servicio Panamericano armored truck would make a drop at the bank.

After shooting Rosi that April afternoon, one of the robbers rushed to co manager Manuel Sandoval Rendon and grabbed him by the arm, pushing him towards the vault in the back of the building. Inside of the vault, millions of pesos awaited: the men guarding the vault had earlier picked up the money from the Bank teller stations and stashed it in the vault and the armored truck had made the deposit earlier than previously thought.

"Open the door!" one of the robbers screamed at Sandoval.

"I cant! The door opens from the inside!" Sandoval replied.

The robber in frustration proceeded to shoot the helpless co manager in the thigh and Sandoval fell to the floor in agony.

The managers agony was being watched by head cashier Raul Rendon from inside the vault via closed circuit monitor. However he couldn't do anything but watch. At the first gunshots, he had activated the robbery alarm and the vault door had automatically sealed itself. The door couldn't be opened.

By that time the Mexican Federal Judicial Police and Municipal Police had surrounded the bank and closed the streets around the building. Hidalgo Avenue, Guillermo Prieto St., Zaragoza St. and Independencia St. were shut down and no one could drive through.

The gunmen furious because they were now cornered with no money and no way out, they opted for taking the 60 plus customers and employees hostage.

Seeing that the situation grew worse by the minute, a young Mexican Red Cross worker named Marco Antonio Estrada tried to mediate with the robbers. He proposed letting everyone go and he would remain as their sole hostage. The robbers ignored him. Then all hell broke loose.

The police shot out a window on the corner of Guillermo Prieto St and Hidalgo Avenue and threw in a canister of tear gas. Then they opened fire. The gunmen holed up inside the bank returned fire and a shootout ensued.

The shooting only stopped when the robbers yelled to the police they would kill hostages if they didn't stop shooting at them. Then they called a local radio station and demanded an armored truck to escape in, cash and a helicopter to flee the state. If their demands were not met they would blow up the bank and everyone inside with sticks of dynamite they had tucked in their jeans or they would simply start executing hostages. "Were capable of anything, we're not afraid to die" one of the robbers told the radio station, his words broadcast throught the city and nation.

Minutes later as a show of good faith, the robbers released 3 hostages; manager Sandoval Rendon, the Red Cross Worker Marco Antonio Estrada and an off duty Judicial Policeman Roberto Soto Cruz.

But the three men had a tragic end. Upon walking out of the doors, they were met with a hail of bullets. The police, mistaking them for the gunmen, had opened fire. The bodies of the three hostages lay dead on the sidewalk in front of the bank while other hostages inside lay wounded by the shooting.

Overwhelmed by what was happening, Governor Labastida gave the order to comply with the robbers' demands. The order from the governor came precisely at the same time as a group of townspeople had gathered outside the bank and threatened to rush the building to protect the gunmen from the police!

It was Thursday April 21st at 12:40 pm when the violence finally ceased. By then the authorities and robbers had come to an agreement. They would trade the hostages for 3 Red Cross paramedics, Rosario Angulo, Jose Lopez and Santana Ortega, and they would be allowed to flee. Outside a Servicio Panamericano armored truck awaited the men.

National and International TV cameras were rolling as 5 robbers, wielding their guns and sacks of cash boarded the armored truck. The 6th robber lost himself among the crowd of onlookers and freed hostages.

Then something uncanny happened. The truck didnt start. No problem. The crowd of onlookers and townspeople pushed the truck up the street, four blocks until the truck started. A grateful robber stunned everyone by cracking open a door and tossing a fistful of cash to the jubilant crowd. The robbers abandoned the armored truck in the Vicente Guerrero neighborhood and fled on foot, aided supposedly by people who lived in the impoverished neighborhood.

After the heist, the city and nation asked itself. Who was responsible for the slaying of the hostages? The Chief of police of Los Mochis, Joel Velasco Flores blamed the gunmen. Others blamed the bumbling police.

Even though people mourned the deaths of four people that warm April day, Rosi Padilla's death was the most dramatic.

Nobody knew that April 20th would be the last day of her three month job contract at the Banamex bank.

Nobody also knew that months before, she had worked at the Banco Serfin bank on Leyva St. and had been a witness to a robbery at that bank. Two of the six men robbing the Banamex bank on April 20th had participated in the Serfin hold up and they recognized Rosi from before. That earned her a bullet to the chest.

Weeks later the robbers were arrested. One in a hospital and the rest were apprehended individually at their hideouts in Navojoa, Sonora. In 1990, the drama was brought to the Mexican big screen in "Bancazo en Los Mochis" (Heist in Los Mochis), starring well known Mexican soap opera actor Eduardo Yanez as one of the robbers. A corrido was also made, retelling the events at the bank.

21 years have passed since the violent robbery at Banamex in Los Mochis, but for the people involved, hostages and police alike, its a memory that will never go away for a simple reason. Too many innocent people died that day.

(with information from El Debate de Sinaloa newspaper)