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Once upon a time, criminals in Montreal were so adept at holding up financial institutions that the city was known as the North American capital of bank heists.

Those bank robbers even exported their expertise to other cities. Toronto police complained about "Montreal-style" robberies committed by stickup crews from the neighbouring province.

But one of this city's more dubious claims to fame is fading away.

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Gone is the era of the well-drilled, four-men crews from Montreal's crime families, or the separatist bank robbers, or even the solo artists such as the man clad in homemade armour who survived 10 shots fired by police.

Hitting a bank branch isn't worth it any more, authorities say.

The Criminal Code is now tougher on crimes committed with guns. Electronic transactions have cut down on the amount of cash kept by banks. The police are keeping computer data on bank robbers to monitor their methods and keep track of the release dates of jailed repeat offenders.

Two decades ago, Montreal police had to deal with 800 to 900 bank robberies a year. In the past six years, Montreal's annual numbers have shrunk to 105 from 316.

The trend is national. Toronto, in the past six years, has seen its bank holdups decrease to 160 from 379. Nationwide, figures show a dip to 856 from 1,496 for the same period.

The decrease is such that, in a sign of the times, Montreal's police are planning to do away with their specialized holdup squad, which for decades drew some of the force's savviest detectives.

"It's not very intelligent to pay 13 guys to work on armed robberies when we hardly have any more left," said Commander André Bouchard, head of the department's major-crime division.

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Once the overhaul is completed, former members of the holdup squad will still handle robbery cases but they will be integrated into other units so they can help with other major investigations, such as homicide cases.

A variety of factors explain the drop in bank robberies.

Together, they illustrate how eradicating a major, violent crime requires unglamorous, little publicized steps -- co-operation and persistence from different partners, such as the police, victims, lawmakers and the judicial system.

Over the years, Montreal criminals devoted much energy and imagination to the art of robbing banks. But for organized crime nowadays, it isn't worth risking lengthy sentences for only a few hundred dollars.

Banks carry less cash because Canadians are now the world's biggest users of automated-teller machines and debit cards, said Shawn Murray, a spokesman for the Canadian Bankers Association.

Also, big companies now deposit wages directly into their employees' accounts. Paycheques used to be issued on Thursdays or Fridays.

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As a result, financial institutions kept lots of cash on Thursdays or Fridays, making them prime days for bank heists, said Pierre Sangollo, a former holdup-squad investigator.

He said most major crime families of Montreal -- the Pelletiers and the Provençals in the east end, the mostly Irish West End Gang in the west and southwest -- were involved in bank robberies in the 1970s.

The robbers worked in teams of four. One stayed outside at the wheel of a high-powered getaway car. Another one, the time man, kept watch at the door with a sawed-off shotgun, often with a timer taped to the firearm. He would warn the others when the time ran out.

Inside, two bagmen emptied the money into sacks while threatening the staff with handguns.

"Before Toronto got better organized, lots of the Montreal guys took the 401 and did their stuff in Toronto," Mr. Sangollo said.

Toronto investigators spoke of a Montreal style of stickup, where hooded robbers waved their guns brazenly and acted very fast, each man splitting into his specific role. "There was no goofing around with them," Mr. Sangollo said.

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Metro Toronto Police would notice bank heists carried out with a certain technique and would turn to their colleagues in Montreal to see whether they had any tips from informants or wiretaps.

Mr. Sangollo said Montreal police helped in the 1982 heist of $1-million from an armoured truck in downtown Toronto. A Montrealer, Johnny King, got a 30-year sentence, the toughest penalty ever handed to a robber.

The Montreal holdup squad was an elite unit of up to two dozen investigators, each of whom had 20 to 25 years experience.

Before the introduction of tactical units, the holdup squad also acted as the force's special-interventions crack team. They were called to the scene if a botched robbery turned into a hostage-taking. They had bulletproof vests and machine guns and held firing practices at a suburban quarry or on a range at an army base, south of Montreal.

During a stretch between 1977 and 1979, the trend was to abduct the families of bank branch managers, then threaten the managers. Thanks to techniques that Mr. Sangollo still won't divulge today, the holdup squad solved most of those cases and the adbuctions fell out of fashion.

For a while, the authorities used money bags outfitted with exploding paint capsules. Eventually though, the criminals learned how to spot them. Banks have beefed up other types of security, from cameras to timer-controlled locks on tellers' cash drawers.

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"It's not worth doing a bank any more, risking 10 to 12 years in jail just to steal a few hundred dollars when you could be a runner or a bodyguard for a drug trafficker and earn more," Mr. Sangollo said.

Some criminologists have speculated that Quebeckers' propensity for bank heists stem from some perception among francophones that banks symbolized the anglo establishment.

Certainly, in the 1960s, members of the Front de libération du Québec turned to bank holdups to finance their terrorist operations. One follower pleaded guilty to 17 armed robberies aimed at bankrolling the clandestine movement.

Bank robbers were usually career criminals. Many are now in their 60s or late 50s. Those still in crime prefer less physical activity, such as telemarketing fraud.

Among the robbers still talked about is the man who doubled as a calèche driver -- a horse-buggy guide who took tourists around Old Montreal. After his arrest, the detectives and their catch had to go on a calèche ride to the nearest stables so they could return the horse before booking the suspect.

Another was the Kangaroo, so named for his ability to leap over bank counters.

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There was the Bonnie-and-Clyde duo, wanted in connection with 22 robberies in a year. They got their nicknames because a police search of their homes uncovered a photo of them dressed in vintage 1920s costumes.

Then there was the man who robbed a dozen banks wearing his own makeshift bulletproof vest, a 31-kilogram device that made him walk like a robot.

In recent years, bank robberies increasingly were committed by junkies looking for quick cash.

Initially, detectives rarely appeared at the arraignments of drug addicts charged with bank robberies because those hearings tend to be routine.

However, the addicts developed a trick: They began pleading guilty right away at the arraignment and would asked to be sent to a detox centre before sentencing. "The only problem was, those guys wouldn't go to the detox," Cdr. Bouchard said.

Detectives now make sure they are notified when someone is about to plead guilty so they can show up and warn the judge if an accused has repeatedly skipped his detox and reoffended.

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