The Praia Street Raiders : Porto Alegre (Brazil) 1911

Tuesday 5 September 1911. Clerk Alcides Brum leaves the rooming-house where he lives and heads for the centre of Porto Alegre at 8.00 am. to open up Virgilo d’Oliveira Albuquerque’s bureau de change on Praia Street.

The buildings in the area all look the same. Each has two or three doorways, business premises on the ground floor and living quarters upstairs. The bureau de change at No 210 has two doors, one of them a glass door. As he nears the premises, Alcides notes that other establishments have yet to open.

Once inside he looks up as the first customers of the day arrive. It is nearly 8.15. He notes that the four visitors are not like the well-dressed “respectable” gentlemen who frequent the establishment.

The three who step up to the counter present travellers cheques and look alike, with virtually the same sturdy build and recognisably foreign features. Two make for the counter while one stands, visibly agitated, by the door and the fourth stands outside. The latter seems to be the oldest at around 30. Seconds later, they draw automatic pistols.

In the Brazil barber-shop facing the bureau de change a customer is being seen to when a shot rings out: two more follow. A man appears across the street, shouting from the doorway into the bureau in a foreign tongue. On the other side of the glass door, two trembling hands gather up the valuables, scooping them into his soft hat.

Four armed men emerge from the establishment. One of them grips a still smoking German Mauser pistol. Porto Alegre has just witnessed its very first armed expropriation.

The neighbours on every side are all agog. The raiders make off in the direction of Comercio Street at a regular pace, their guns thrust into their pockets. The inside of the bureau de change still reeks of gunpowder. Alcides Brum lies moaning and bloodied on the floor behind the counter and in font of the open safe.

Inspector Chico Flores, in charge of No 3 Judicial Police barracks and a member of the Republican Party springs into action. He has been briefed on the hold-up just carried out on Praia Street. The raiders have taken to their heels.

Turning the corner into a street leading to XV Square, a policeman watches four figures. Dodging between the carts, all sizes of carriages and a few automobiles, the fugitives, brandishing their weapons reach the side of the Public Market. Shopworkers and workmen working on the Market’s second floor break off from their work to watch what is happening.

Four men are racing down the middle of the street, followed by a crowd of locals and a few knife-wielding town police. The fugitives clamber on to hackney car No 21, the first in a line of Carriage Company cabs parked in the rank on the bridge in XV Square.

Since the cabbie has given them up, one of the raiders picks up the reins. But instead of carrying on down Marechal Floriano Street, he decides to do a U-turn and steers the cab right at their pursuers, forcing a passage.

The salesman at the gunshop in Marechal Floriano Street recognises the two men sitting up front and the guns in their fists. Three days earlier, on the Saturday morning, they had been in his shop. The salesman looks at the customers askance. For almost a half and hour he showed them hunting guns, birding guns, Flobert rifles, Winchester repeating rifles and at least a dozen handguns of various makes and calibers. They struck him as unfamiliar with firearms.

They passed themselves off as Argentineans and spoke Spanish but addressed one another in some strange tongue. They picked a German 7.63 mm. ten-shot Mauser handgun at 120,000 reis, and a US-made Browning six-shooter pistol at 80,000. And bought about 200 shells. Paying in true bills.

On this Tuesday, those queer customers are mounted on the driving board of the cab, firing their weapons after raiding the bureau de change. On reaching the corner of the Tabak store, the vehicle takes a sharp right turn and speeds down Voluntarios da Patria Street.

Though it is not quite 8.30 am., Voluntarios da Patria Street is packed. On both sides of the street, carriages, ox carts, carts and automobiles are collecting or unloading goods at the small workshops and busy local businesses. The already congested space in the street is hurriedly traversed by a speeding, zigzagging hackney cab. With two men shooting into the air. Bringing up the rear, dozens of rubberneckers and Administrative Police personnel blowing whistles.

After travelling two blocks dodging and weaving through other vehicles, the driver loses control and the cab carrying the armed men slams into a carriage parked in front of the Colyseu Theatre in Bombeiros Square, just beyond the power plant.

Their horse hits the vehicle broadside, the carriage spearing it through the chest. The four raiders are thrown clear.

After their fall they make off towards Conceição Street, the pursuers hot on their heels. Panic grips the streets of Porto Alegre.

The No 35 street-car is due to pull in at Senador Florencio Square at 8.40 on the dot. The armed raiders make for the street-car. The motorman tries to accelerate but is stopped by orders from the four men who have leapt aboard the moving vehicle and call for him to apply the brakes. Poked by a pistol, the motorman swings the crank around and steers the streetcar back towards the barrio. Women making up the rest of the passengers are calmed by the raiders with assurances that nothing untoward is going to happen to them.

The crank reaches point seven, a speed out of the ordinary. When the car reaches the corner of Voluntarios da Patria Street and Parque Street, just where the Lineas Navegantes tracks and São João tracks cross, the motorman deliberately omits to open the switches, whereupon the connection with the power lines is lost. Losing power the streetcar freewheels on for a few metres before coming to a halt.

The race is now on, up Voluntarios da Patria Street, heading northwards. From a doorway, from the side of his eye, a young milkman catches sight of four men scurrying along the tracks.

Curious, the fellow climbs on to his cart and sets off in pursuit. Just as he nears them and when the fugitives can see that he is on his own, he is curbed by a revolver pointed by one of the men. The milkman is overpowered and they make off in his cart.

The milkman drives his horse-drawn cart, squashed between two of the men and with a pistol poking into his side. The cart heads due north for the spot where Voluntarios da Patria Street becomes Navegantes Avenue and plunges between farmhouses and rice and barley fields.

The cart draws up in the yard outside one of the farmhouses located at the end of Dona Teodora Street. Its passengers make off across country in the direction of the river Gravatahy.

As yet the identities of the fugitives are not known. Inspector Chico Flores is briefed on the capture of four Jews some months earlier. They, like the raiders, were foreigners and, under questioning, claimed to be anarchists. The police set about organising search operations.

The Gravatahy railway station serves as a tailor-made headquarters for the search, due to its being readily accessible and its having a telephone. Patrols scour São José Street and keep watch on the Canoas road and Gravatahy bridge. Launches belonging to the Military Brigade scan the river between the bridges and round up canoes along the banks. Chico Flores is placed in official command of the police forces.

Not common criminals …

The bureau de change hold-up and the raiders’ spectacular escape is the talk of the town. Everybody tries to cash in on the events and gain the upper hand in the political and social squabbles of the day. A Reforma, the mouthpiece of the Federalists, as part of its chief policy, lashes the shortcomings of the Republican Party government under Borges de Medeiros in an effort to rebuild its reputation. [Note: Up until 1889 Brazil was an Empire ruled centrally by Pedro II. Pedro II ruled from the centre, appointing governments and allocating resources to the states. The new republic after 1889 elected its rulers. The new republic was officially federal (the United States of Brazil being the official name of the country) but still centrally ruled due to an alliance between the states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais. The “federalists” sought to boost state powers over central govt; the “republicans” stressed the importance of strong government from the centre. Borges de Medeiros (1863-1961). President of Rio Grande do Sul state for 25 years, from 1898-1909 and 1913-1928, he adopted the positivist approach to govt. recommended by Auguste Comte (from whom the motto on the Brazilian flag “Order and Progress” derives).]

The republicans are alive to the urgency of this matter’s being cleared up by the police and weathering the storm without losing credibility in the eyes of the public. Borges wants all suspects rounded up until order is restored so as to banish the sensation that the government’s writ does not run in the centre of the city.

In June the workers’ movement marks the victory of working class anarchists in the elections to the Workers’ Federation of Rio Grande do Sul. Their strength has been growing since a 21 day strike back in 1906, due to committed visits to factories and mobilising of the working class. Once few in number, the anarchists are gaining ground, capturing the lead in important trade union groupings, swelling their ranks and pushing out the socialists, among them the leader Xavier da Costa. Socialist Carlos Cavaca sees this as an opportunity to make propaganda against his rivals in the workers’ movement, given their leading figures’ suspicious connections with anarchism.

There is gossip and speculation about the incident. “When all is said and done, these are no ordinary criminals driven by an ingrained ambition to line their pockets through crime. These are anarchist agitators, perhaps driven by political motives to secure certain things they have not yet been able to get access to”, Inspector Chico Flores speculated during the investigation. “During their escape, they did not split up, not even when things were at their most dramatic. On at least two occasions, one of them fell to the ground and the others came to his aid. There is no question but that these guys are united, as far as the evidence shows. There may even be some sort of pact between them.”

That night, in the hall of the Rio Grande do Sul Workers’ Federation, following a talk given by physician Reynaldo Geyer in the Elisée Reclus Rationalist School, a group of labour militants of anarchist persuasion hold a meeting. Present are the Italian stonemason Luigi Derivi, the Polish tailor Stephan Michalski and the printing workers Lucidio Prestes, Polidoro Santos and José Rey Gil; the republican newspaper lies open before them.

Worried about the repercussions, they have their doubts about the hold-up’s having been the handiwork of anarchists. Be that as it may, they must defend their beliefs and the influence they have built up among the workers. Between themselves, they comment about the similarities between the hold-up and several acts of expropriation carried out by comrades in Europe, about which they would need to know more. At which point the meeting decides to commission Reynaldo Geyer to pen a piece for the libertarian press. Something generic, stresses Derivi, to do with the class struggle, establishment violence. Historically they accuse anarchists of engaging in terrorism. The article should state that anarchists are not violent, that they are merely reacting to the violence inherent in power and the existence of authority.

Flowers for the rebels fallen …

The head of the search operation now has back-up from 30 police officers, 10 troopers assigned to police duties, a squad from No 2 district and a few officers from the Military Brigade. At 5,00 pm., he is further reinforced by 34 troopers from the Brigade’s First Battalion. The republican leader Borges de Medeiros wanted more.

The main suspects, it has been decided, are Jews and the police begin the round-up. Porto Alegre’s tiny Jewish community is made up of a few German, Polish and Austrian drifters bound for Argentina where the government imposes restrictions on foreigners. These have been joined by Russian immigrants who in dribs and drabs quit the Philippson Farm because they cannot quite adapt to agricultural life. Broadly speaking, they have left Europe to escape the growing pogroms and in search of new opportunities in the New World.

The police investigate a Jewish store known as ‘The Flower of Buenos Aires’. Four brothers by the name of Zweible, travelling salesman for the store, were arrested some time back on suspicion of smuggling or passing counterfeit money, only to be freed shortly afterwards. One of them professed to be an anarchist. But intelligence had it that there were three Zweible brothers, not four.

Then a different lead emerges. Arson against a shop in Andrade Neves Street, the handiwork of four Russians. A crime reporter shows up at the ‘Loja Franceza’, a drapery store in the same street. When questioned, the store manager admits having fired an employee for inappropriate conduct, he having made crazy demands. A Russian by the name of Pincus Isner. Who said that the store-owner was a bloodsucker and who wanted reduced hours and increased pay for all his comrades. Some days after that, another four Russians showed up at the store, threatening to kill the owner, should he choose to ignore the demands. Shortly after which there was a mysterious blaze at the store, in the finest cloth section. Raising suspicions. The owners knows that they are all anarchists on the files of the Buenos Aires police.

After he was sacked, Pincus Isner had left for São Paulo. The crime reporter makes his way to the shabby rooming house until he locates another Russian who associated with him. Yurian Kirienko was employed at the Public Market and attended the syndicalists’ Elisée Reclus School. He is one of the many that left Russia following the failure of the revolution in 1906 when the tsarist regime stepped up its persecution of the socialists and anarchists. He stowed away on a foreign ship and managed to hop from port to port. In Argentina he met people from the Federation of Russian Workers and became a member. When the government started to harass foreigners and use violence against those dabbling in politics, one of his friends, Alexander Grauberger, aka Sasha, invited him to come to Porto Alegre where Sasha had relatives living.

Yurian Kirienko worked as a stomemason and took part in the successful June strike for a cut in working hours, only to be sacked shortly after that. His friend Sasha found him a job at the delicatessen where he himself was working and taught him the trade. In addition to which he brought him to classes at the Rational School. The other Russians involved in the Loja Franceza arson attack were Pablo, Fedko and Stefan.

Alexander Grauberger, or Sasha, becomes the number one suspect. He stayed at the rear of the bar where he worked. According to the owner, he was an anarchist, the best worker he had ever had. In a trunk he kept some well looked after books about socialism, anarchism and other doctrines by writers like Errico Malatesta, Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Max Nettlau; books in Russian, German and Spanish. The reporter does not find him at home when he calls on the day the hold-up is carried out.

Night falls and the raiders hide out in the marshes around Gravatahy, with no chance of escape. All of the approaches by land or river are closely monitored. Captain José Maria Vianna has been seconded to the operation. He was prominent in epic incidents during the 1893 war between the Republicans and the Federalists. The police can also rely on the presidential escort, a 20-strong elite force; plus a battalion from the Military Brigade and a Judicial Police team with 43 men. Just two hour before, 24 officers have arrived from No 1 barracks. They have decided to keep the cordon in place until the morning and to launch the final offensive in the early hours of the morning.

In the course of the investigation the Zweible brothers have been arrested and ruled out. They do not fit the bill. The raiders stole their identities. Alexander Grauberger is the target now.

At around 4.00 am., the fugitives approach the bridge on the river Gravatahy, crawling along the ground, but are sighted and driven off by gunfire from the officer commanding the escort. Shortly after that, they try to slip through the line of bayonets deployed along the railway line. They bump into one of the troopers and fire shots at him but are driven off and vanish back into the undergrowth.

At 6.00 am., as the night mist is beginning to lift, the police are at the ready. One team will see to the outer cordon and two more led by Inspector Chico Flores and Captain José Maria Vianna will comb the undergrowth, moving in from two different points. Orders are to watch for the slightest response from the bandits and to fire at will!

The reed beds around the river Gravatahy are still enveloped in thick, dense fog that reduces visibility to less than ten metres. In many places the troopers and police are obliged to wade, chest-deep, through the water. Which is how one sergeant gets lost from the rest.

Sergeant Manoel is lost alright and calling out to his colleagues, with no response. He succumbs to fear and starts to curse and mutter at one vague outline. A burly form looms in front of him and he notes that the figure is armed. He picks up his cornet and blows.

The stranger raises his gun but misses his aim as the sergeant grips his cornet by the mouthpiece and strikes his assailant on the head, felling him. This, as is evident from the cries of his comrades, is Sasha.

Within minutes troopers from the Brigade have surrounded the figure whom they have traced to a tiny island in the middle of the marsh and they plunge into the water brandishing their rifles. The stunned figure and the others lurking in the mist come under sustained gunfire. The fugitives empty their repeater revolvers.

The gun-battle lasts less than three minutes. Once it becomes plain that there is no more fight left in the fugitives, Captain Vianna calls for his men to cease fire. The bodies lying in the mud are shaken by further shots. Finally the Mausers fall silent. It is 8.15 am.

Chico Flores then orders that the bodies, handcuffed to one another be removed and they are dragged through the water by mounted troopers The corpses are loaded on to a cart and taken to Gravatahy station.

The previous night, the republican, pro-government newspaper A Federação reported that some twenty Jewish prisoners had escaped. Apparently this was a terrifying gang but the police was on their trail.

At No 3 barracks, in Floresta Street, the political and police authorities plus the press greet the return of the expeditionary force with fireworks. Before the bodies were moved for parading through the streets on a workhouse funeral cart, Edward Grauberger has time to recognise his brother among the dead. Alongside Sasha lie Stefan Sedoresky, Pablo Pavlowsky and Feodor …

Workers of Russian origin, according to the landlady of the rooming house, but not Jews, as the coroner disclosed, having found no signs of circumcision. As Reynaldo Geyer acknowledged, Sasha had had connections with the direct action groups and he had argued that politicisation of workers derived from times of conflict, strike tactics and campaigns.

The four corpses are removed to the Santa Casa cemetery and buried at dawn on the Thursday so as to preempt disturbances. With crude headstones bearing numbers rather than names. By the next day they are bedecked with flowers and a few days later with rose petals and thick candles. Placed by unseen hands.

From: Freely adapted from Rafael Guimaraens, Tragédia da Rua da Praia. Uma história de sangue, jornal e cinema (Editora Livretos 2005). Taken from the website of the Gaucha Anarchist Federation (FAG) of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) www. . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.