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The Great Buenos Aires Bank Heist
The Great Buenos Aires Bank Heist
They were an all-star crew. They cooked up the perfect plan. And when they pulled off the caper of the century, it made them more than a fortune—it made them folk heroes.
By Josh Dean
February 20, 2020
illustration of robbers on a dingy
Illustration by Paul Lacolley
It was 12:38 in the afternoon on January 13, 2006, when the call went out to police: a bank robbery in progress. Moments later, cops were racing through San Isidro, a leafy, affluent suburb north of Buenos Aires. When officers arrived at the scene—a tan two-story branch of Banco Río, one of Argentina’s largest financial institutions—they were pleased to discover that the thieves were still inside.
As officers established a perimeter, they watched as the bank’s lone security guard ambled out the door, carrying his gun.
The robbers had emptied the weapon and placed its bullets in the guard’s pocket before permitting him to leave. There were hostages inside, he reported, and 10 minutes later, another of them, a young, nervous man, was released. Shortly after that, a masked thief appeared at the door, clutching a woman.
When he caught a glimpse of the assembled police force, the thief let the woman go and he ran back inside the bank.
There were five thieves in the bank, costumed in various disguises, and now they were trapped, along with 23 hostages. Outside, the streets were swarming with police, who soon established radio contact with one of the robbers, who called himself Walter. The thieves knew they were surrounded, Walter said, but they weren’t yet ready to give up. And until they were, the police had better stay back. Nobody wanted to see another Ramallo.
This struck a nerve. The heist in the town of Ramallo was infamous in Argentina. Six years earlier, three armed men had burst into another bank, not far from this one. As on this day, the thieves held hostages and, during an attempted escape, used them as shields. That’s when things went sideways. Police opened fire, killing a robber and two hostages. Ramallo was a national scandal, but what made it especially terrible is that the fiasco played out on live TV.
Now, in San Isidro, the news cameras had arrived again, training their lenses on the scene as more than 100 cops surrounded the bank and cordoned the nearby streets. Every available perch that afforded a view to the bank was occupied by either photographers or snipers.
For more than six hours, the nation was transfixed. The police had nicknamed Walter “the Man in the Gray Suit.” He was instantly famous. The hostages, Walter said, were being treated well. The mood inside seemed oddly ebullient: At one point, Walter and another robber could be heard singing “Happy Birthday” to a bank employee whose phone had been buzzing with birthday messages from friends and family. At 3:30 in the afternoon, Walter asked for pizzas; the hostages were hungry, he said. Then, only a few minutes later, Walter went silent.
For over three hours, police leaders and city officials fretted over what to do as further attempts to reach Walter failed.
Finally a team of special-forces officers took up position outside the bank. At 7 p.m, they burst inside. But there was no shoot-out, no commotion. And no sign of the thieves. The hostages were dispersed on three floors—the lobby level, a mezzanine space, and down in a basement conference room, which had been locked from the inside. They were all unharmed.
It wasn’t until detectives reached the basement that they discovered what the robbers had truly been after. There, in the expanse of the bank’s subterranean level, hundreds of reinforced-steel safe-deposit boxes lined the walls. And in a place like San Isidro, at a time like 2006, those boxes represented a veritable treasure trove.
Argentines are uniquely distrustful of their banks, and for good reason. They’ve been betrayed by them, over and over. Most famously in 2001, when the collapse of the national banking system, known as the corralito, erased entire fortunes, affecting millions. With no faith in accounts, bank customers began tucking their savings—their cash, jewelry, and other valuables—into safe-deposit boxes. And this particular bank, situated in one of the richest enclaves of Argentina, must have seemed especially enticing, flush as its deposit boxes were sure to be with the fortunes of the city’s most well-to-do.
Somehow the thieves had smashed open a huge number of the boxes—143 of the bank’s 400—and cleaned them out. But what exactly they’d grabbed, or where they’d gone, was a mystery. Cops swept every inch of the bank’s three floors but failed to locate a single member of the gang. The bank had only two exits—both of which had been covered by police since the siege began. All of the building’s windows were intact. And the robbers were not hiding among the hostages. They’d simply vanished.
The thieves had left a few things behind. Detectives found a battery pack, a tool that they surmised had been used to crack the boxes, a row of toy guns laid neatly on the floor, and a note, taped to the wall above the toys. It was handwritten and must have seemed like a taunt: “In a neighborhood of rich people, without weapons or grudges, it’s just money, not love.”
The Argentines who had sat glued to their televisions that Friday the 13th would spend the next weeks engrossed by the story of the Banco Río job—and years after enthralled by a saga that provided one unbelievable twist after another. The incident is still as legendary today as it was 14 years ago. Long after its mysteries were untangled, the so-called Robbery of the Century endures as a modern-day Robin Hood saga—one that immortalized a crew of colorful thieves who set out to become rich and became folk heroes instead. And it all began with Fernando Araujo.
Araujo had a crazy idea, and he shared it with his friend Sebastián García Bolster. This was a few years after the botched Ramallo heist had lodged itself in Araujo’s brain. It would be crazy to rob a bank but not leave, he mentioned to Bolster. To disappear through a hole. Bolster had been friends with Araujo since high school, and he agreed: That did sound like a wild way to rob a bank. But he assumed it was just some lark; his pal Araujo smoked a lot of weed.
The two had grown up together in upper-middle-class homes in the north suburbs, but they were very different. Whereas Araujo pursued eccentric—occasionally illegal—interests, Bolster was a law-abiding family man. He worked mostly at repairing small engines—motorcycles and Jet Skis. But he was also an inveterate tinkerer, the kind of guy who sketches plans for a cheap, homebuilt helicopter in his spare time. Araujo might have had his friend’s mechanical talents in mind when he floated the idea of a bank robbery. But Bolster paid it no mind.
Araujo, on the other hand, couldn’t get the notion out of his head. He was a free spirit and an artist. He’d gone through a breakup and was now cultivating various strains of high-grade marijuana. He had blacked out the windows of his loft, in order to remove the world. He ate sporadically, slept when he felt like it, and taught martial arts to pay his bills. He studied Eastern philosophy and was consumed with bank robberies, watching every possible film, TV show, and documentary he could find, searching for inspiration—and also mistakes—as he set out to architect the perfect heist. He listened to Mozart and Beethoven, for creativity, and also “Bankrobber” by the Clash, for motivation.
When Araujo came back to Bolster, in 2004, it was with more concrete plans. I need technical things, he told his friend. You will be my Lucius Fox, Araujo said, referencing the comic-book purveyor of Batman’s fantastical tools.
Bolster was wary. He was disinterested in crime; plus, he knew that banks were no easy target. He had worked part-time at one, even earning employee-of-the-month recognition. But he’d grown to hate financial institutions. His father and grandfather had both lost money in crashes. “I watched my father working all my life, and I saw how the banks stole his money,” Bolster thought. “Well, I went to get it back.” If Araujo could promise him that the robbery would not involve violence—that they wouldn’t even carry weapons—he was in.
Araujo’s years of contemplation had landed him on an audacious and complicated plan. He would arrive, and exit, using a tunnel. The suburbs of Buenos Aires were honeycombed with enormous storm tunnels that ran beneath the streets and drained to the river. Araujo figured that all he needed to do was find one that could get him near the bank he had in mind and then dig upward. The idea began to take shape.
One obstacle vexed Araujo longer than others: How would he disable the alarm systems that protect the bank when the place is empty? The only viable solution ratcheted up the degree of difficulty. They’d have to go in during a workday, when alarms weren’t a factor.
And how, Bolster wondered, would they do that?
By creating a diversion, Araujo said. He already had a clever one in mind: They could stage a phony bank robbery—a traditional smash-and-grab. Then, with the entire country focused on that, he’d quietly drain the boxes in the basement.
In Bolster, Araujo had his engineer—the guy who’d mastermind the tunnel work—but for a job of this magnitude, he needed a dream team of thieves. Via friends in the city’s underworld, he recruited a veteran bank robber whom everyone called Doc, plus an old associate of Doc’s named Rubén Alberto de la Torre. “Beto” and Doc had both been members of a legendary crew of armed thieves known as the Super Banda, which terrorized banks across Argentina in the 1980s and ’90s, often engaging in wild daylight shoot-outs with the police.
The pair had mellowed with time, but their violent pasts made Bolster nervous anyway. He decided that the biggest of his jobs—carving the tunnel from the city’s storm drains up into the bank—was best done alone. The solitude made it easier for him to compartmentalize the operation as an engineering problem, not a major criminal scheme.
For months, Bolster would drive his truck down to Perú Beach at night, parking near the spot where the city’s huge drain tunnel emptied into the Río de la Plata. He’d slip inside around 9:30 and slosh his way through the labyrinthine drain network, hiking for about a half hour to reach the location adjacent to the bank from which his work would commence—located beneath a manhole cover in the street.
With a hydraulic shovel, Bolster spent his nights chiseling the hard earth beneath the street, inching ever closer to the bank. He claims that his wife never questioned his nocturnal absence. She just assumed, he says, that he had a mistress.
Problems arose and problems were solved. For instance: What is the proper angle for a tunnel that runs from an underground canal to the bank’s foundation, many meters above? Misjudge by even a little and you could end up in an old lady’s basement. The answer, of course, was just math. Bolster knew he could calculate the precise angle if he had lengths for two sides of a triangle—the vertical distance from the street to the floor of the canal below, and the horizontal distance that the tunnel would travel to reach the exterior wall of the bank.
The first measurement was simple to obtain. Araujo rode his bike one night to the bank and found a storm drain through which he fed a string with a weight tied to one end. When it clanged on the canal floor, he had his triangle’s height. Calculating the horizontal distance was trickier. But Bolster had an idea. There was that manhole cover in the street, directly above the spot where his tunnel would begin. He’d measure from there to the wall of the Banco Río—but he knew he couldn’t just show up on Calle Perú using a measuring tape to size up a bank without arousing some suspicion. So he measured the circumference of his bike tire and then, late one night, walked his bike from the manhole cover to the wall of the bank as inconspicuously as possible, counting each full rotation by watching the air valve as the tire rolled. It was 37.5 rotations, or about 185 feet. Bolster did the math: The tunnel should be 69 degrees.
Would it all be worth the effort? It was tough to guess how much they’d make, but Araujo tried. He says he used the purported take from a 1997 robbery of safe-deposit boxes to work up an estimate. In that heist, thieves opened 167 boxes and took a total of $25 million in cash. By that formula—and accounting for some inflation—the 400 boxes in the Banco Río, Araujo decided, might yield as much as $60 million.
To finance what was quickly becoming a costly scheme, Araujo sold his car and plowed about $5,000 into the endeavor, but supply costs ran amok and the money didn’t go very far. They needed an investor. And Doc had the perfect man in mind: a renowned Uruguayan thief named Luis Mario Vitette Sellanes. Vitette had money, style, and expertise. He was a specialist in exotic entries, having been the famous Spider-Man of Buenos Aires. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, a slimmer Vitette scaled buildings in order to rob apartments. Until he was caught, he had a grand old time frustrating cops while supporting his voracious booze and coke habits. When Araujo reached out, Vitette had been semiretired from crime. He had a nice home and a comfortable life, but “once a thief, always a thief,” he says. This was too sweet to pass up. He invested about $100,000 and was immediately helpful as a problem solver.
One big chore on Bolster’s list was figuring out how to crack into the safe-deposit boxes. Easy enough, he figured, if he had one to practice on. So Araujo set out for a neighboring branch of Banco Río, where he asked to rent a box, made note of the brand, and then bought a few from the manufacturer.
Whatever Bolster built had to be fast, powerful, and quiet, so as to not reveal to anyone inside the bank that someone was breaking into boxes. That ruled out explosives. Cutting wouldn’t work, either; that would create fumes, which could become dangerous in the confined space of the basement box room.
His solution was a jackhammer with ample force to punch through the locks. He built it in a way that ensured it could be transported in pieces, assembled in the bank, and taken apart rapidly. He called it the power cannon. This would get them inside the boxes, but how to get their contents out of the bank? If they contained the kind of cash and valuables that Araujo imagined, there was no way to carry the loot out by hand. Boats would work. Specifically, inflatable Zodiacs. But the water level inside the storm canal was rarely deep enough; a raft loaded with men and money would drag on the bottom.
Araujo wanted the cops to think that they had the panicked gang surrounded; he wanted to lull the police into feeling they were in a position of power.
No problem, Bolster thought. He’d build a dam to raise the water depth. He designed one in his shop, using wood, then took it apart so it could be installed in the storm canal over several nights.
At every turn, Araujo imagined what could go wrong. He began to wonder what would happen if the cops discovered they were escaping through the tunnels beneath the streets. Naturally, he figured, cops would assume that the robbers would exit through the canal’s terminus, at the river. But he wanted as much advantage as he could create. A better idea was to flee the other way, by going deeper into the dark, fetid canals. This way, they could pop up anywhere in town. They simply could park a getaway van above a manhole and have a driver waiting patiently while a tense hostage situation occupied the city’s entire police force barely a mile away.
On the day of the robbery, the seven men went about their regular morning routines and then prepared for their roles in the big play. Some of the gang members met for coffee at a bar. While there, they applied glue to their to their fingertips, hoping that when it hardened they wouldn’t leave prints. Then they set off in three vehicles—a pair of cars stolen that morning headed to the bank while the getaway van, driven by a man named Julián Zalloecheverría, cruised to the pickup spot. Bolster, as usual, worked alone. He drove separately to Perú Beach, parked his car, and entered the tunnel around 7:00 that morning.
First into the bank was Beto, dressed as a doctor, in a baggy lab coat, followed by Doc, who wore a ski mask. Beto pulled out a toy gun he’d taken from his nine-year-old son that morning, flashed it around, and told everyone to get on the floor. This was a robbery.
Meanwhile, Vitette and a last-minute addition—a seventh member, known as Luis the Uruguayan, whose true identity is still a mystery—drove one of the stolen cars into a garage under the bank. Vitette and Luis carried the power cannon and some other tools into the bank, shut and locked the garage door, and used the car to barricade it. Then both men joined their friends upstairs, pretending to be part of a frantic robbery that was about to go bad.
Araujo hung back outside in one of the stolen cars. He parked alongside the bank and put the flashers on, to create the impression that this was the getaway car. He’d filled the back seat with nail strips and oil cans, knowing that cops would recognize these as the kinds of things a gang fleeing after a robbery might use to slow down pursuit.
As the mastermind strode into the bank, he wore a baseball cap and a ski mask pulled tightly over a long blond wig, plus sunglasses—and he looked so unlike himself that Beto put a toy gun to his head the minute he stepped through the doors. “Beto,” Araujo hissed. “It’s me.”
Each man now had a task prescribed by Araujo. Vitette would deal with the cops. Luis and Beto would subdue the hostages. And Doc would go the cleaning room and activate the final man: Bolster. The Engineer had been sitting there in the dark, waiting patiently at the terminus of the tunnel he’d dug, separated from the basement now by just a thin wall. Doc arrived and carefully broke the wall from the inside, trying not to leave debris, and greeted the Engineer. The game was on.
illustration of robbers inside the bank vault with hostages
Illustration by Paul Lacolley
Upstairs the gang emptied drawers. Vitette sat atop a counter and stepped into his lead role as Walter the negotiator, a charming man with a fake mustache, a tailored gray suit, and a yarmulke. It was his job to buy the men in the basement the time they’d need to empty the boxes, luring the police into believing that the standoff they were now engaged in was the result of a botched robbery.
As planned, Vitette released the bank’s armed guard and told the police negotiator that this was “proof that we are good people.” He said he was freeing his worst enemy. The actual motivation to free the guard was that Araujo didn’t want a single real gun inside the bank, because someone might use it.
They released a second and then a third hostage too, as part of Araujo’s psychological strategy to convince the police that they were making progress, that they had the upper hand and that time was in their favor. Araujo wanted the cops to think that they had the panicked gang surrounded; he wanted to lull the police into feeling they were in a position of power. “We must look nervous and stupid, like we’re losing control,” Araujo had told his crew. Also, people watching at home “must have sympathy for us.” Some freed hostages should buy goodwill.
On the radio with the police negotiator, Vitette emphasized that the robbers wanted to avoid a reprise of the Ramallo gunfight. He warned that the members of the gang were armed—a complete lie—and prepared to shoot their way out. But they really didn’t want to do that. A peaceful resolution, Vitette said, was in everybody’s interest.
According to news reports, this mysterious band of thieves, who’d embarrassed Argentine police on national TV, got away with almost $20 million in cash and valuables. The cops had no leads.
In the weeks that would follow the robbery, as the details of the caper captivated the country, Vitette’s role—glamorized in the press as the Man in the Gray Suit—drew particular notoriety. Over time, the legend grew even more, especially when Vitette started to share dramatic embellishments with reporters. Like that he’d prepared for the role by taking acting classes and had put coins in his mouth so that no one would recognize his voice or detect his Uruguayan accent.
Finally, when Vitette got the signal from Araujo, he told the police negotiator to order six pizzas. Then he put down his radio and told the hostages that the gang needed to step away for a meeting. Anyone who moved, he said, would be killed.
Down in the basement, Bolster worked fast. Araujo had given them all two hours, and he started his stopwatch the minute Doc punched through the wall to let Bolster in. It took Bolster 20 minutes to assemble the power cannon, but soon he was rapidly opening safe-deposit boxes and kept the pace up for the better part of 90 minutes. Before long the loot was piling up around him. Once things were settled upstairs, Araujo and Doc arrived and began to stuff their haul into bags.
Araujo knew they couldn’t linger. The stalemate upstairs wouldn’t last all day. When it was time to go, Bolster took the tool apart, lowered the pieces to Luis the Uruguayan, now in the tunnel, and cleaned the room. Then he assembled a series of fake bombs he’d created and scrambled back through the hole, followed by Beto and Vitette.
That left Araujo and Doc to finish up around the basement. One sprayed bleach, hoping to destroy any remnant DNA, while the other grabbed fistfuls of barbershop hair from a bag and tossed them around in order to further stymie investigators. Finally, the two men cleaned all evidence of the wall breach from the room where Bolster had entered, ducked into the tunnel, and moved a heavy cabinet in front of the hole. To anyone who entered, the room would appear to be an empty, untouched storage space.
Five guys piled into the first Zodiac, the one with the engine, and hooked a line to the trailing raft, which held a mountain of bags loaded with loot, plus Araujo, who stood atop it like a conquistador. Not everything went perfectly. The engine wouldn’t start, and Bolster was too exhausted to argue with whoever kept yanking the starter, which flooded the motor.
Araujo had planned for this too. He handed out paddles.
It was about 10 blocks to the passage where they ditched the boats and climbed up a ladder into an elevated side channel that led to the getaway van. The men took turns hoisting up the bags, using a pulley system Bolster installed a few days before. Then he pulled up the ladder, leaving no sign that this channel, of the dozens along the pitch-black canal, had been the escape route. The Zodiacs, abandoned below, just floated off.
When the special forces team finally stormed the bank, the seven bandits watched it live on TV while counting cash and eating pizza. Or at least they thought it was live. TV stations covered the operation on a 30-minute delay, because they assumed the gang would be watching from inside the bank and didn’t want to tip them off that a raid was coming. They figured they would trick the thieves.
A day later Bolster gathered all the credit cards they had found in the safe-deposit boxes and scattered them around various storm drains in the area, all of them far from the actual exit point the gang had used. This “evidence” forced cops to case the wrong blocks and also created dozens of bogus leads, because every time a stolen card was used by someone who’d found one, the police had to dispatch detectives to open an investigation. “Their forces—and energy—were diluted,” Bolster recalls proudly. “Our advantage was huge.”
According to news reports, this mysterious band of thieves, who’d embarrassed Argentine police on national TV, got away with almost $20 million in cash and valuables. The cops had no leads.
How it all came undone—how the gang got caught and sent to prison—in a fit of impulsive pique hardly seems appropriate, given the precision and care of the crime. If the men were stunned by their capture, a bigger surprise might have been the trajectory their lives have followed since—one marked by curious opportunity, improbable fame, and perhaps the odd satisfaction that getting nabbed could well have been something of a lucky break.
Five weeks after the heist, Beto de la Torre was out for a drive with his girlfriend when police pulled him over. This, he just knew, was the end.
Beto had often been unfaithful to his wife, but this particular dalliance had apparently been too much for his then wife, Alicia di Tullio, who he claims alerted cops to his role in the heist—and to the fact that he was making a run for it with his girlfriend. (Beto swears he wasn’t.)
The specific details of what transpired between Alicia and Beto before the cops entered the picture remain unclear—Beto has given conflicting accounts over the years, and Alicia has rarely spoken publicly. But the basics seem to have gone like this: Beto brought home his share of the Banco Río haul, making no secret of its provenance. Beto claims that later, when he moved some of the loot, he discovered that a sizable portion was missing. The couple fought over it, he says.
Before long, the cops were pursuing a tip that Beto and some friends—Araujo, Bolster, Vitette, and Zalloecheverría—were the Banco Río gang. Apparently, Alicia was able to ID most of the crew because she’d seen them in her garage, working with Beto to prep the getaway van in the days before the job. (Doc and Luis, who had never come to the house, weren’t on the police’s radar and were never charged with a crime.)
In her most recent interview, given to the journalist Rodolfo Palacios in 2015, Alicia claimed she’d intended to hurt only Beto, and she has asked for the forgiveness of Araujo and Vitette.
“I never thought she would do that,” Beto tells me. Beto was accustomed to jail; he’s spent much of his adult life behind bars. While there, he became the first to talk publicly about his role in the heist, speaking to Palacios for a book the journalist wrote, called Without Arms or Grudges.
That book, Beto says, is fine, but it’s not 100 percent accurate. It leans too heavily on Araujo’s perspective, he thinks. The truer story, he tells me, can be found in a book that he helped a different journalist write. “These are my words,” he says, tapping his hand on a copy of Robbery of the Century: The Secret History, which had been rushed out in order to beat Araujo’s version to market. There is also a third book, written by yet another journalist, and just this year, a major film was released in Argentina, heightening national interest in the caper all the more.
Beto is 66 now and, like the other major players in the heist, agreed to talk with me about the long, strange shadow the scheme cast in his life. As you might expect, he’s defensive about the notion that he’s responsible for their capture. “I will always be angry, for the rest of my life,” he tells me at a bar not far from the dodgy neighborhood where he used to run a cell phone chop shop.
But there’s also this: If they hadn’t been collared, there’d be no books, or movies. The Robbery of the Century would have remained something of a mystery. Which is a satisfying result—pulling off one of the greatest heists in history and walking away with millions. But isn’t there something special about the credit, the recognition warranted by a genius scheme of this magnitude?
Beto thinks for a second, and his eyes—so blue that a witness recalled them vividly at the trial, even though he’d worn a mask—light up. “There’s something true about what you say,” he answers. Beto sold the rights to his name to the producers who made the film and he visited the set a few times. He pulls out his phone to show me a photo. It’s of him, dressed for a small but important role—as the cop who pulls over the actor playing Beto, who in the movie version is definitely making a run for it with his mistress.
But it’s not just the fame. He’s proud of the robbery. “Of all the things I’ve done—all the stupid things—this makes up for that,” he says, and then searches for a way to describe it. “It’s like this beautiful brooch.”
When cops arrested Beto, Vitette, Bolster, Zalloecheverría, and Araujo, they recovered only a small fraction of what was stolen.
Where is the rest?
Beto rubs his head. “You know, when they arrested me, I got a big knock on my head,” he says. “I can’t remember.”
Sometime after Luis Vitette, the Man in the Gray Suit, was tried and sent to prison, his lawyers took advantage of a legal loophole. He was not an Argentine national and thus was eligible to have his sentence cut in half, provided he left the country and never came back. So in 2013, Vitette was deported to Uruguay, having served only four years behind bars.
He moved to San José de Mayo, the small town outside Montevideo where he’d grown up, and married a much younger woman, had a son, and opened a jewelry store called the Green Emerald.
Vitette is standing outside the store as I arrive, and he closes his shop to give us privacy. The gang’s most dynamic member has been out of jail for six years now, which has been the longest period of sustained freedom he’s enjoyed since he was a teenager. The life of crime just sucked him in, Vitette says, and he got stuck in a cycle of stealing to support his lavish habits, then getting locked up, then starting all over again. Before computers, cops never connected his crimes. Jail stints were short. But when digital records arrived, he adapted. “I became Spider-Man. That guy was thin and athletic,” he says, patting his belly.
At the jewelry store, live footage from four different security cameras plays on a computer screen as we talk. “Here too,” Vitette says, pulling out his phone. “And at home. Remember, I’m a thief.”
Vitette has mixed emotions about getting caught. Obviously the point of a robbery is to get away with it. So the outcome, in that sense, was bad. But bad things can become good. Argentines now come by his shop to take photos. Sometimes they buy jewelry. This very afternoon he is scheduled to talk to the editor who will publish his book. Yes, another book.
Each book is just a “version” of the story, Vitette explains. And, to him, every version so far is wrong. Or least embellished. Only Vitette’s book will be true: “My truth!”
Vitette has given many interviews and spread his legend proudly. But here’s the thing, he tells me: It wasn’t really him. The persona—the guy from the interviews—that’s the Man in the Gray Suit. He was created for cops and the media. “But when you come here, to the shop, you see the person.” Vitette!
Vitette has some things to tell us: He did not take acting classes, nor did he put coins in his mouth. “Have you tried to talk with coins in your mouth? It’s impossible.” It’s fiction, he says, then stops. It’s the Man in the Gray Suit’s truth.
In Araujo’s gang, Zalloecheverría was known as “El Paisano,” or sometimes just “Paisa.” It means, basically, a guy from the country, and Zalloecheverría was essentially retired from crime in 2005, when his old buddy Beto called with an opportunity. “Robbing a bank is what every criminal wants to do,” he tells me in the bustling cafeteria of a university south of Buenos Aires, where he’s now in his final year of law school.
Impressions are important to Zalloecheverría. He still dresses immaculately and has lost weight, so his other old nickname, Gordo, no longer applies. He insisted we meet on campus, during lunch, and that I wear something that made it clear I was a journalist. He asked for a “press jacket,” which is maybe not a thing, so instead I wore a “press” badge my fixer got at the last G-20 summit.
Zalloecheverría’s main regret seems to be that he wasn’t inside the bank. Vitette had wanted him there, he says, because of his experience. But Araujo wanted him to be the driver. So Zalloecheverría sat in the van, over that storm drain, for two hours. The spot was chosen because the storm drain there is close to the sidewalk and not in the middle of the street, which meant that Zalloecheverría could just park over it, for a long time, without attracting undue attention. He could have sat there and waited for hours, he says, for days.
Bolster says that this heist changed the way that Argentine police respond to robberies. Cops now question whether what’s happening is actually what it seems.
When the gang divvied up the loot, the shares were not all entirely equal. Bolster, Beto, Vitette, and Araujo all got more or less the same—likely millions each. Zalloecheverría and Luis the Uruguayan got less, because they joined much later. This was prearranged, and no one was upset about it.
The morning that police came for him, Zalloecheverría spotted suspicious vehicles at both ends of his block. He had a feeling he was screwed. But he got in his car anyway. The moment he pulled out of his driveway, cops descended. He’d been here before. He braked to a stop, rolled down the window, and asked, “What’s wrong, officers?”
Here at school, Zalloecheverría tries to keep a low profile, but his past is not a secret. Professors sometimes ask for photos, which is awkward. Why, he wonders, do people care so much for these stories? Why are even law-school professors attracted to criminals? “Don’t you think it’s a little morbid?” he asks me.
Zalloecheverría has little desire to talk about his crimes these days, he says, except to show people that another life is possible—that he made it to the other side: “I’m not interested in publicity. I’m not interested in what the others do—like films or books.”
But he’s not especially embarrassed about Banco Río, either. “I’m a professional thief,” he says. A thief with standards, who steals with dignity and honor.
“Do I regret it? How can I?”
Was it perfect?
“Yes,” he says, with no hesitation. “It was a work of art.”
The Engineer got the shortest sentence, and he served just 25 months. Bolster apparently confessed his involvement under duress but was convicted only of helping to construct the tunnel, and—until last year—Sebastián García Bolster had never publicly admitted his role in the robbery. He was always coy about it. He would say things like “The judge said I did it, and judges are always right, so I suppose I must have.”
But on May 3, 2019, Bolster finally told the people of Argentina, on TV, what they already knew—that he was Araujo’s MacGyver, the famous Engineer. I spoke with Bolster around then too, as crews were at work on El Robo del Siglo (“The Robbery of the Century”), the big movie dramatizing the heist.
The statute of limitations has expired, which is one reason Bolster is opening up. Another feels more strategic: “I want to collaborate on the film. I can’t collaborate on the film until I say it was me.” He smiles. He’s sitting in a booth at a fast-casual burger spot, directly across from the Banco Río site, which is still a bank—now called Santander Rio. Bolster was a customer at the branch before the robbery. “They kicked me out,” he says.
Bolster points to the spot on Calle Perú where Araujo parked the decoy getaway car and left its blinkers flashing. He says that this heist changed the way that Argentine police respond to robberies. Cops now question whether what’s happening is actually what it seems. They call this, Bolster says, “the Man in the Gray Suit Protocol.” Before Banco Río, he says, police considered only that thieves might escape via the obvious points of egress—doors, windows, the roof, or maybe even a hole in the wall that connects to an adjoining structure. Now they carry tunnel maps and look for every possible point of access, he says—above the ground or below it.
He still talks to his old friend Araujo; their relationship endures. But he’s not in touch with the others. “I was a strange guy in the band,” he says, the only one who’d never been convicted of a crime. Araujo has respected Bolster’s desire to remain quiet. He’s never used his name publicly; when he refers to Bolster, in relation to the heist, he says “the Engineer” or sometimes “El Marciano,” which means “the Martian,” which is what the other guys called him, because he was so different from them.
The film that Araujo is making, he says, is much more exciting than what actually happened. It’s more dramatic and features a thrilling climax. “The truth is too boring,” he says, “because we made no mistakes.”
“No one has ever said anything bad to me,” Bolster says. “Many people congratulate me. That’s very confusing. I know it’s wrong to steal. But they congratulate me.”
What had always appealed to him about Araujo’s plan was the challenge of it. “Yes, it’s a robbery,” he says, “but it’s a technical challenge too.” Also, he was angry at banks for what they’d done to his family. In a sense, this was revenge: “Stealing is wrong, but I can justify it here. What I can’t justify—and didn’t contemplate—is what it did to my family.”
Bolster says his family was horrified, and then humiliated. “They were all working people,” he says. “My father, an engineer; my grandfather, also an engineer; my sister, a doctor. A normal family. It changed my life.”
For six months after prison, he says, he was depressed. It was difficult to even go outside. “I was Sebastián the mechanic,” he says. “Then I became Sebastián the bank robber.” But over time, that new identity wasn’t so bad. Bolster says he earned a kind of absolution that, he admits, surprised him. “No one has ever said anything bad to me,” he says. “On the contrary, many people congratulate me. That’s very confusing. I know it’s wrong to steal. But they congratulate me.… To understand this, you have to be Argentine.”
When he was planning things, Fernando Araujo called his scheme the Donatello Project—but not because of the Renaissance artist. Because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which are green like his beloved cannabis, practice martial arts, and take huge risks. Also, they move around under cities using tunnels, which they access via manholes. He now has “Donatello” tattooed in large script on his forearm.
He shows me that tattoo, and many others, late one night in the kitchen of his one-bedroom apartment, which is illuminated entirely with blue lights. Araujo sits on a counter, smoking a cigarette. He has shaggy dark hair with frosted portions and wears loose green track pants. The clock on his microwave is 5 hours 32 minutes fast.
He has just returned from the set of El Robo del Siglo, directed by one of Argentina’s best-known directors and based in part on a script Araujo worked on for four years. He says he’d planned to go to Europe to live after prison but “found myself doing a book,” and that book helped lead to the movie, and here we are. He wrote two versions of a script himself, and then, when producers bought the rights, they hired two screenwriters to move it forward.
He secured cameo roles for Beto and Bolster and would have found one for Zalloecheverría, had he not refused to participate. Vitette couldn’t appear, because he’d been deported from Argentina, but Araujo proposed at least including his voice, as a newscaster or something. The Man in the Gray Suit declined. “[Vitette] loves cameras,” Araujo says.
That reminds me, I tell him, of what Vitette said to me—that the legend of the Man in the Gray Suit is, at least in part, a lie. That he did not take acting classes or talk with coins in his mouth. Araujo listens intently, then nods. “He likes to confuse people,” he says. “He is a manipulator.” Also, he says, Vitette did take acting classes and did put coins in his mouth.
The movie, Araujo admits, takes some liberties to dramatize the events: The true story had no real climax. The gang escaped. The police were not even sort of on their heels. “So these things you have to change; otherwise you do a documentary,” he explains. Which, by the way, he plans to do next. Well, not next. After the movie, he hopes to produce a nine-part Spanish-language TV series about the heist. Then he wants to do a documentary.
What everyone else in the gang told me is also true in the eyes of the Mastermind. The point of the robbery was to steal money, but it was also to make art. Over time, Araujo has come to see this even more clearly. “I am not a bank robber,” he says, suggesting that he is something more. Maybe getting caught was inevitable: After all, executing a crime this perfect and then never getting a chance to take credit for it is a little like owning a Picasso you can’t display.
Now Araujo is free to brag about his own masterpiece and monetize it. He can be proud, and he is. “In the history of humanity,” only two things “transcend life,” he says grandly: children and art. “I came to the conclusion that I did it for the artistic part. Not so that they know about Fernando Araujo,” he says, “but so that the art remains. Great works of history, you know exactly who made them—not by the name on the side but by the artwork itself.” Like the pyramids! Generation after generation knows the pyramids by sight. And our wonder over them never ebbs. But almost no one knows the name of anyone who built them.
Two bottles of Malbec are gone. A joint has been smoked. It’s approaching midnight. At some point Araujo ordered some pizza and empanadas, and when his doorman calls up to say that the food has arrived, I pull out my wallet. As the guest, I say, I should pay. He shakes a finger.
“No, no,” he says, his mouth curling into the widest, most mischievous grin you can imagine. “Banco Río is paying.”
Josh Dean is the host of the true-crime podcast ‘The Clearing’ and the author of ‘The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History.’
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue with the title “The Great Buenos Aires Bank Heist.”
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