Brazilian officials knew of protest, thought they could contain it



BRASÍLIA — At least five days before a horde of right-wing rioters stormed government buildings at the heart of Brazil’s democracy, the call went out via Telegram and WhatsApp. The message, shared in groups of fervent backers of the country’s Trumpian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, urged truck drivers, farmers, cattle ranchers, gun owners, business leaders and the “Brazilian people” to act.


In the aftermath of the extraordinary assault on Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace, authorities launched a wave of arrests — at least 1,500 by Monday evening — a cobweb of investigations into murky financiers, and a burst of recriminations over failed security. As Brazilians lamented the destruction to their country’s iconic federal buildings — smashed glass, splintered furniture, a punctured canvas by the Brazilian master Emiliano Di Cavalcanti — they also took stock of rot at the heart of their democracy: A radicalized horde of political fanatics who survive off a steady diet of disinformation and conspiracy theory.

The rallying cry for Sunday came after a massive security operation for the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the lion of the Latin American left who had defeated Bolsonaro in the closest election in Brazilian history. Bolsonaro, who for years sowed doubt in the reliability of Brazil’s elections, refused to concede, feeding the narrative to his supporters that the election had been stolen.

Since Bolsonaro’s election loss in October, thousands of his supporters had camped outside military installations across the country, including the headquarters of the armed forces here in the capital. Despite all evidence to the contrary, bolsonaristas were convinced that Brazil’s generals would move to prevent Lula’s inauguration on Jan. 1. When that didn’t happen, authorities say, the messaging appeared to shift to provoking military action through a show of public force.

Donors from at least 10 Brazilian states, some linked to Brazil’s big agribusiness interests, a pillar of Bolsonaro’s support, covered the costs of buses to transport thousands more bolsonaristas to the capital in recent days, authorities said.

For weeks, the would-be rioters had been fed conspiracy theories via social media. One claimed Bolsonaro had gone to Florida to escape an assassination plot. Another cast Lula as a communist set to impose a pro-LGBTQ, abortion-backing “dictatorship” in Latin America’s largest nation.

Sunday’s action was promoted with the hashtag #Brazilianspring.

Lula’s administration was aware of the risk, officials said. But officials had received assurances, Justice Minister Flavio Dino and senior Lula adviser Paulo Pimenta said, in the form of several messages from Ibaneis Rocha, the pro-Bolsonaro governor of Brasília’s Federal District, that everything was under control.

Not only was the security presence on Sunday far smaller than on inauguration day, but some police — a security force seen as sympathetic to Bolsonaro — had failed to erect barricades that the Lula officials said they had been told would prevent rioters from entering the Plaza of the Three Powers, home to Congress, Planalto Palace and the Supreme Court.

Others in law enforcement appeared to take the insurrection lightly. As rioters looted and ransacked the government buildings, officers were photographed buying coconut water.

“When did I know about Sunday?” Dino asked Monday. “During [last] week. … That’s why I spoke with Governor Ibaneis, because we had the sense that something could happen.”

Dino said his first inkling of trouble with security was a news report on Saturday that Rocha had changed the plan. But several previous threats, he said, had been successfully contained, and authorities accepted Rocha’s assurances.

By Sunday, Dino said, “the fundamental element of our [security] plan with the governor of [Brasília] was not fulfilled. I could see from the window of the Ministry of Justice that the contingent of military police was not what was agreed between us and the governor.”

The Supreme Court suspended Rocha as governor of the federal district late Sunday. Some administration officials say he might have been misinformed by his security officials, or simply mishandled the operation. Others think he intentionally misled the government.

Rocha did not respond to a request for comment. He condemned the insurrection and fired his security chief on Sunday, denied colluding with rioters and apologized to Lula for the security lapses.

“I cannot say what the governor did to increase security, but he was complicit,” said Paulo Pimenta, a senior Lula adviser. “That was part of this attempted coup.”

Either way, the outcome was Brazil’s Jan. 6 — a replay of the 2021 insurrection by supporters of Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol, this time dubbed in Portuguese. The parallels were striking. Two hard-right presidents who lost elections both refusing to concede, giving oxygen to radicalized, conspiracy-theory-guided supporters who had lost the ability to separate truth from fiction. In Brasília as in Washington, they trafficked in stunning contradictions — seeing themselves as patriots and defenders of democracy even as they allegedly engaged in treason to undermine it.

“These people [on Sunday] were motived by conspiracy theories,” said Tai Nalon, executive director of the fact-checking organization Aos Fatos. “They believe the leftists are seizing power. Their argument was that this communist agenda would install LGBTQ rights, unisex bathrooms and abortion. It’s not logical. It’s just against what they see as a conservative way of thinking, and they wrap it all together and call it ‘communism,’ even though that’s not what communism is, and nothing close to communism is happening in Brazil.”

The assault on the government, long forecast by analysts who saw bolsonaristas following the MAGA playbook, has shaken the nation. Authorities have made sweeping arrests and promised many more. On Monday morning, military police and army forces acting on a court order finally cleared protesters from the camp that had been outside military headquarters for nearly 70 days. About 1,200 bolsonaristas were taken into custody. They were loaded onto 40 buses; some waved the Brazilian flag as they were taken away.

They were among the 1,500 suspects Dino said were arrested. Federal police are scrutinizing videos posted to social media to identify and locate more suspects, as U.S. authorities did in the aftermath of the Capitol riot.

One senior Brazilian official said authorities were tracing electronic transfers that funded the buses that carried bolsonaristas to Brasília last week. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, declined to name suspects. But that official and another who spoke on the same terms said “some” of the financiers were involved in Brazilian agribusiness. One of the officials said a Rio de Janeiro-based hotelier appeared to be involved.

President Biden and Lula spoke by telephone on Monday, the White House said. Biden “conveyed the unwavering support of the United States for Brazil’s democracy and for the free will of the Brazilian people as expressed in Brazil’s recent presidential election, which President Lula won,” the White House said, and invited Lula to Washington next month.

Despite admissions by his own justice minister that official had advance knowledge of potential attacks in Brasília, Lula insisted late Monday that Sunday’s events came as a surprise to him. He slammed police and intelligence officials for “neglecting their duty” and asserted that police had colluded with rioters.

“We could see the police officers talking to the [rioters],” Lula said.

The rioters themselves hailed from the ranks of right-wing conspiracy theorists — and appeared to buy into outlandish theories. On Sunday, a woman with the rioters near the Ministry of Defense building agreed to an audio recording of her interview with a reporter only if she covered her face with a Brazilian flag.

She said she had been camping outside the military headquarters since Lula was declared the winner on election day. She said she had heard that Bolsonaro had fled to Florida “because otherwise he would be killed” by a militia being run by Alexandre de Moraes, a senior judge on the Supreme Court and a Bolsonaro nemesis.

“Lula,” she said, “is trying to enslave us.”

Late Sunday, the Supreme Court blocked 17 pro-Bolsonaro influencers for allegedly aiding in the coordination of the attacks. As in the aftermath of the U.S. insurrection, right-wing proponents in Brazil on Monday sought to distance their icon — Bolsonaro — from the assault, while blaming left-wing infiltrators for the violence.

“Will these infiltrated [leftists] who promoted chaos and vandalism yesterday be held accountable?” Carlos Jordy, a pro-Bolsonaro lawmaker from Rio, asked in a tweet on Monday.

The objective of Sunday’s assault remains murky. Pimenta said the bolsonaristas were hoping to touch off a level of chaos that would have triggered a law that grants the military extraordinary powers to enforce peace — as happened in Rio’s hillside slums in 2014 as the country was preparing to host the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

Others note that Dino announced last week that he would clear the protest camps, suggesting their dissent would soon be brought to an unpleasant end.

Many say it’s difficult to determine a logical rationale. Conspiracy theories that floated around Telegram and WhatsApp groups in recent days suggested that some bolsonaristas believed Lula and Moraes would be arrested in some sort of coordinated operation as they stormed government buildings on Sunday.

No such plan appeared to exist.

“Many of these people were camped out at military headquarters for weeks and thought that by entering those buildings, they would force some kind of response,” said Ana Julia Bonzanini Bernardi, a professor in São Paulo who studies misinformation and social media. “I think a lot of them really thought the military was going to take over.

“Fake evidence circulates online — that someone has found some paper that proves Lula will be arrested. It’s not true. But [to them] that doesn’t matter.”

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