Brazils Missing Millions
By Gabriel Elizondo
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
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
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.
But any excitement the villagers had for their
good fortune quickly turned to despair and fear.
“We had thieves, police, media, everyone here,”
said Wanda dos Santos, a villager.
“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
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.
However, only 10 per cent of the cash has ever
“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
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.”