The Great Heist spoilers follow.
Netflix's The Great Heist is the thrilling story of a group of thieves who break into the bank of the Republic in Columbia and steal over 24 billion pesos. It's based on a robbery that took place in 1994 and made history as the biggest heist of all time. But this adaptation changes many of the main events, omitting key details while combining or altering almost all of the main characters. So what was the real story?
The actual mastermind was a high ranking member of a drugs cartel
In the show, the brains behind the plot is Chayo. He was a con artist and thief all his life. Chayo also runs a jewellery store as a front, so his wife and daughter believe that all the money he earns is from a legitimate source.
At the start of the series, he's in terrible debt, particularly as his last robbery failed spectacularly. Chayo decides to break into the vault of Columbia’s foremost bank. The money he needs to finance it all comes from the mafia who threaten to kill him if he doesn't double their investment.
In reality, the leader of the robbers was Benigno Suárez Rincón. He was a lieutenant of the notorious Medelin cartel under drug lord Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, until Gacha's assassination in 1989. This meant that he held one of the highest positions in a cartel led by Gacha and Pablo Escabar, himself.
A few years after Gacha's death, Suárez Rincón participated in a high profile robbery. He didn't take on the heist out of a position of weakness and debt, as the show implies.
There's also no evidence that his financier got the money for the robbery from the mafia. Even if he did, it's highly unlikely that a man like Suárez Rincón would have been threatened in the same way as Chayo.
There was no real tension between the main conspirators
A major storyline in the show is that Chayo's heist partner, Molina, holds a lot of resentment towards him. In their last robbery, Chayo insisted that they had more time to escape. But they were apprehended by a guard and Molina was shot, leaving him with lasting kidney damage.
Molina initially refuses to become involved in Chayo's new plan, but ends up reluctantly joining so he can get the money he needs for a kidney transplant. At one point in the planning stages, Molina considers leaving because he doesn't trust Chayo.
When it takes much longer to break through the vault and the next shift of guards arrive, Molina angrily states that Chayo is leading them to suicide again. He refuses to listen to Chayo's assurances and even considers leaving the hotel room, opposite the bank, where he is helping Chayo co-ordinate the heist.
In real life, Suárez Rincón's second in command was Alexánder Flórez Salcedo. They'd both worked together for years as lieutenants in Gacha's drug cartel. There's no indication of any deep resentment or tension shared between them. No one in the gang had any health problems.
The gang's leader didn't enter the bank himself
Chayo is at the centre of the gang's attack in The Great Heist. He's right there in the bank, leading his group through all the difficulties they face in breaking through the vault.
Andrés Parra, who plays Chayo, talked to El Colombiano about how he found this a particularly positive trait of his character.
"It caught my attention that he is not only the brain of the organisation, but also that he had the courage and guts to enter, because these characters tend to stay outside watching... from the street."
In the planning stages, it's Chayo who convinces a police lieutenant to provide a distraction so the gang can enter the bank. He also talks to the security guard who agrees to aid them.
However, Suárez Rincón co-ordinated the whole operation from a hotel room opposite the bank. It was his second in command Flórez Salcedo that led the men into the vault. In the show, the positions are reversed and it's Molina who stays in the hotel room.
The real mastermind also recruited Bonilla Esquivel, a lawyer and former investigator to help him in co-ordinating the attack. Bonilla spoke to their security guard on the inside and many of the policemen both during the heist and in the planning stages.
Suárez Rincón ensured that neither the police officers nor the security guard had any idea what he looked like, a precaution that Chayo never takes in the show.
The Governor of César was linked to the crime
The show never mentions that a state governor was implicated. Lieutenant Caicado, one of the participants in the robbery, confessed that the gang initially took some money to Governor Cerchar’s estate. They believed it was one place the police wouldn’t be able to enter.
After Caicado’s confession, the police raided the estate. Nothing was found. But some time after the robbery took place, the police discovered a large number of bills with the serial numbers of the stolen money on one of the Governor’s farms. Cerchar was, in fact, hugely corrupt. In 2009, he was sentenced to 24 years in prison for various crimes.
The show omits many of the events that led to their capture
On the show, Estiven, the getaway driver, has a boyfriend, Miguel, who is a police officer. Estiven tells Miguel about the robbery and indicates that they could get more of the loot money by threatening Dragon, another member of the gang.
With Miguel in charge, corrupt police raid Dragon's home and threaten to kill his family if he doesn't tell them the location of his money. Dragon capitulates, but they believe he has another stash stored elsewhere. His family convinces him to go to the police station. He confesses and gives up Lt Monroy, the police officer working for the gang who he believes is behind the raid. In turn, Monroy gives up Molina.
Dragon is partly based on Bonilla Esquivel. He was the first to confess his part in the robbery to the authorities. Bonilla claimed that he was scared for his life because some of the police involved had threatened to kill him if he ever said anything about their part in the robbery.
It wasn't a question of being extorted for money, like the show suggests. Years later, the bigger picture behind why Bonilla gave himself up was revealed by 'Fabio,' one of the gang's leaders who anonymously shared his story with the journalist Serrano Zabala.
According to ‘Fabio,’ the rest of the gang encouraged Bonilla to give himself up after Bonilla's description was released to the media. Some, including ‘Fabio,’ even gave him a share of their money to persuade him. The gang believed Bonilla's capture was inevitable and hoped that if he gave himself up he would get a lower sentence and have less incentive to reveal his co-conspirators. So, Bonilla confessed because of the media coverage, the influence of the gang and the threats of certain policemen. In the end, Bonilla gave up several names and was the reason behind the capture of ‘Fabio’.
But his confession wasn't the only reason some of the gang got caught. Authorities already suspected many of the officers who had control over the surveillance units and patrols around the bank since they had withdrawn just as the van carrying billions left the bank.
The family breakdown of the gang’s leader never took place
Chayo’s family in the show have no idea that he’s a criminal. But then his wife recognises that Dragon, the man the papers identified as one of the robbers, is someone Chayo introduced her to. She realises that some of the bills in their house match the serial numbers of the stolen loot. Chayo denies knowing anything about the robbery stating that he never received money from that man.
When she confronts him with the stolen money, he confesses that he’s been a thief all his life. The jewellery shop is simply a front: their real money comes from his criminal activity. She can’t take his betrayal and leaves their house with his daughter.
For Suarez Rincón, however, this was never an issue. He’d been a high ranking member of a drug cartel for years, so his wife was aware of his criminal ties. She wouldn’t leave him because of a robbery.
In 1996, police found out that Suarez Rincón was hiding in a farm in the mountains. The series indicates that the ringleader was captured in the mountains and admitted who he was. But this wasn’t how detectives identified him.
A source revealed to El Tiempo that police intercepted him leaving the farm, but Suarez failed to respond to his name being called. However, a female detective tricked him by asking about his wife, Odilia and he revealed his identity by stating that she was in Bogota. She didn’t just disappear and leave him. Suarez Rincón knew exactly where she was.
In many ways, the true story is even more extraordinary than anything the show depicts on screen.
The Great Heist is now available to watch on Netflix.
Digital Spy has launched its first-ever digital magazine with exclusive features, interviews, and videos. Access this edition with a 1-month free trial, only on Apple News+.
Interested in Digital Spy's weekly newsletter? Sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like