How The Real People Behind The Great Heist Pulled Off “The Robbery Of The Century”

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Money Heist fans, get ready: Netflix’s latest crime drama, The Great Heist, isn’t taking on any old petty crime — it’s about the execution and aftermath of “the robbery of the century,” the 1994 theft of 24 million pesos from Colombia’s central bank in Valledupar.
The six-part series, created by Pablo Gonzalez and Camilo Salazar Prince, focuses on the ringleaders of the robbery. Chayo (Andrés Parra), a jeweler in major debt, enlists his former crime partner Molina (Christian Tappán), financier Doña K (Marcela Benjumea), and safecracker Dragon (Waldo Urrego) — plus, of course, some corrupt cops — after a job goes wrong to pull off the heist. In real life, however, the robbery, which was the equivalent of $33 million in 1994, is believed to have been pulled off by a 26-person group. So how did the real thieves actually do it?

The Real People Who Pulled Off "The Robbery Of The Century"

The “robbery of the century” of the Banco de la República (Bank of the Republic) occurred on October 16-17, 1994, but the plan actually started several months earlier, in June of that year. Benigno Suárez Rincón was the brains behind the caper, with Alexánder Flórez Salcedo his second. They recruited Juan Carlos Carrillo Peña, the chief of the judicial police, and Jaime Bonilla Esquivel, who looked into the bank’s surveillance. The pair met with several others in Valledupar’s main square to discuss the heist, and 20 days later, Carrillo Peña was able to give Bonilla Esquivel details about the bank’s security. 
Elkin Susa, the financier of the heist, meanwhile, obtained welding equipment from Canada and paid for three people in Bogotá to learn how to use it and eventually destroy a vault at the bank. On October 14, days before the heist, they sent the tools back. The following day, October 15, Bonilla Esquivel met with Carrillo Peña at noon. Several hours later, they met with a second lieutenant, where they explained the heist would take place the following day — but it’s unclear if the robbery was in process or not, as Bonilla Esquivel could have been trying to mislead the policemen. If the bank’s alarm went off, the officers were to pretend to attend to it and tell others that routine maintenance was being carried out at the bank. 

The Real Great Heist

The heist itself began on Saturday, October 15 at 6 a.m. It was a holiday weekend, so the assailants arrived in a red Dodge truck under the guise of repairing the bank’s air conditioners. Several of the assailants entered the bank and opened the garage door so the truck could enter. Suárez Rincón and Bonilla Esquivel, meanwhile, waited at the Hotel Sicarare, which had a view of the bank. The security video recorded the truck entering the video just before 6:15 am. Carrillo Peña and the two lieutenants saw the truck enter and began their surveillance rounds. The bank’s door was operated by Winston Tarifa, a security guard who communicated directly with Bonilla Esquivel. Inside the bank were three other security guards, who were all threatened and tied up.  
The assailants deactivated the alarms and installed welding equipment, but in the midst of events the electricity went out, delaying the heist and forcing the assailants to remain in the bank for 18 hours. They broke a pipe in a bathroom next to the vault, torched the armored door, then gained access to an auxiliary door before finally entering the main vault, where the stolen money was. Nearly 21 hours later, security footage managed to capture the assailants leaving at 2:51 a.m. local time. In the control room, Tarifa was tied up with fake explosives attached to him. Bonilla Esquivel, meanwhile, was spotted leaving the hotel early on Monday, October 17. The assailants headed to a mattress factory, where they placed the money on two trucks used to transport beer. That afternoon, one of the guards in the bank managed to break free and notified the police outside what had happened. 

Were The Great Heist Robbers Ever Caught?

After the heist, the bank was able to identify the stolen bank notes by their serial numbers — so the money immediately lost value. The robbers had exchanged the bank notes with flagged serial numbers for bills that were freely circulating and sold bills at half their actual value. 
Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office, the national police, the National Sub-Directorate of Judicial Police and Investigation, and the Administrative Department of Security were investigating the “robbery of the century.” They were able to identify Bonilla Esquivel and released his identity to the media, prompting the gang of assailants to offer him money to surrender. Authorities believe 26 people were involved in the heist, with some — including Suárez Rincón and Carrillo Peña — receiving prison sentences while others were never caught.

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