In Brazil’s Flooded South, A Secret Mission To Recover Thousands Of Guns From An Airport

SAO PAULO (AP) — A group of volunteers working to save people from the floods in southern Brazil claim they were misled into participating in an operation to remove several thousand firearms from the airport of Rio Grande do Sul state's capital Porto Alegre.

Nicolas Vedovatto, a 26-year-old investor, told The Associated Press that he and three others found out through a WhatsApp group created to muster volunteers that help was needed to save children stranded at the flooded airport. They offered their support, then met a woman identifying herself as Vivian Rodriguêz on May 7 at a gas station just before the planned operation, Vedovatto said.

She informed them that she actually worked for Brazil's largest gun manufacturer, Taurus Armas, and that they would in fact be rescuing rifles and pistols. Vedovatto said his first impulse was to back out.

“I immediately said, ’No, wait a minute, I came to rescue children,” he said by phone late Thursday from Capao da Canoa, the city on Rio Grande do Sul’s coast where he lives.

He said Rodriguêz responded that extracting the guns was important to prevent them from falling into criminals' hands and that, if they declined to participate, they would be temporarily detained to prevent information from leaking. So he and the others went along.

Vedovatto shared video of the operation, filmed on his cell phone, with the AP. The images show him at the airport warehouse and on a boat escorted by a heavily armed Federal Police agent.

A Brazilian public security source with knowledge of the operation told the AP on Friday that the Federal Police warned Taurus it detected that criminal groups had become aware of the cargo in the airport. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, confirmed the veracity of Vedovatto's footage and that the volunteers indeed participated along with Taurus' team.

In a response to AP questions, Taurus late Thursday confirmed that the operation took place, but said it is unaware of volunteers’ involvement and that it would investigate allegations with police authorities. Special troops from the Federal Police, the Army and state police deployed to ensure security, but the handling of the cargo itself was left to Taurus, it said.

Brazil's Federal Police – which regularly oversees airport security in the country and also coordinated the operation – told the AP in a statement that Taurus and the people the company contracted were the only ones involved in removing weapons from the airport.

The operation was first reported last week by UOL, one of Brazil's biggest online media. Vedovatto’s account was first published Thursday by ABC+, a news website in Rio Grande do Sul state.

He told the AP that Rodriguêz showed him and others her company ID.

Taurus declined to confirm whether Rodriguêz is an employee or not when asked by the AP. Her Facebook profile, linked to the Instagram profile provided by Vedovatto, identifies her as an employee. He also shared her WhatsApp number and screenshots of their conversation.

She did not respond to AP calls or messages sent through WhatsApp and social media.

More than 150 people have been confirmed killed by the floods as of Friday, with another 97 missing and over 600,000 forced from their homes.