The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s military blocked arrests of Bolsonaro rioters, officials say

The towers of Brazil's congressional building are seen from the damaged Supreme Court building in Brasília's Plaza of Three Powers after the assault of Jan. 8. (Rafael Vilela for The Washington Post)

BRASÍLIA — As security forces cleared supporters of defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil’s Congress, presidential palace and Supreme Court last Sunday, the insurrectionists retreated to a place they had made their sanctuary: the lawn outside the national headquarters of the army.

The bolsonaristas had camped on the sprawling green space since the right-wing leader’s October election loss to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. They, like Bolsonaro himself, refused to recognize Lula’s victory, even after the leftist was sworn in Jan. 1. For weeks, they had called on the military to stage a coup to keep Bolsonaro in power.

Supporters of Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro have rallied around the country’s iconic yellow and green soccer jersey. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

It was an idea that observers in and out of Brazil saw as far-fetched. But when top Lula administration officials arrived at the army headquarters Sunday night with the aim of securing the detention of insurrectionists at the camp, they were confronted with tanks and three lines of military personnel.

“You are not going to arrest people here,” Brazil’s senior army commander, Gen. Júlio César de Arruda, told new Justice Minister Flávio Dino, according to two officials who were present.

That act of protection, which Lula administration officials say gave hundreds of insurrectionists time to escape arrest, is one of several indications of a troubling pattern that authorities are now investigating as evidence of alleged collusion between military and police officials and the thousands of rioters who invaded the institutions at the heart of Brazil’s young democracy.

Those indications also include a change in the security plan before the insurrectionists gathered outside the federal buildings on Sunday, police inaction and fraternization as they began entering the buildings, and the presence of a senior officer of the military police who had told superiors he was on vacation.

This article, based on interviews with more than 20 senior Lula administration and judicial officials, protest organizers, participants, data miners and others, includes previously unreported details of the five-hour attack that shook Latin America’s largest country, with echoes of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Brazil’s military command did not respond to a request for comment.

Authorities are also working to identify the authors of messages on social media calling for the Sunday demonstration and the donors who funded buses to carry participants to the capital.

Before Sunday, the military had twice blocked authorities from clearing the bolsonarista camp, according to statements by Col. Fábio Augusto Vieira, the former commander of the military police of the Federal District of Brasília, that were provided to The Washington Post. Vieira has been detained in connection with security lapses during the riots.

The insurrectionists tore through the modernist government buildings of Brasília’s Plaza of the Three Powers, smashing glass, destroying furniture, slashing paintings and stealing weapons, documents and other trophies. Their plan, administration officials believe, was to trigger a law that would have allowed the military to restore order in the capital.

The investigation has also engulfed a key figure from Bolsonaro’s administration: Anderson Torres, Brasília’s security chief at the time of the insurrection and Bolsonaro’s justice minister. After the riot, authorities found a draft decree in Torres’s home declaring a “state of defense” to override Brazil’s electoral court and overturn Lula’s election victory. Investigators say they believe it was written between Dec. 13 and 31, when Bolsonaro was still president.

Torres, who was in Florida during the insurrection, has not challenged the authenticity of the document but said it was meant for the trash bin. He has denied any connection to the riots. Torres returned to Brazil on Saturday morning and was promptly arrested.

Bolsonaro spent years sowing doubt in Brazil’s electoral system, calling Lula a thief and stoking his supporters’ belief that if his opponent won, it could only be through fraud. Lula’s victory was affirmed by Brazil’s electoral court, the United States and other governments around the world. Bolsonaro authorized his chief of staff to lead a transition but never conceded.

On Dec. 30, in his most extensive public remarks since his loss, Bolsonaro called the result unfair. Then he decamped to Orlando, skipping Lula’s inauguration and its ceremonial passing of the presidential sash, a symbolic affirmation of democracy.

Still in Kissimmee, Fla., when his supporters began rioting, he was publicly silent for several hours. He condemned the violence, while also noting past violence by Brazil’s left.

Brazil’s Supreme Court on Friday agreed to a petition by prosecutors to investigate Bolsonaro as part of its probe into the “instigators and intellectual authors” behind the riot.

“There were a lot of conniving agents,” Lula told reporters last week. “There were a lot of people conniving from the military police. A lot of people conniving from the Armed Forces. I am convinced that the door of the [presidential palace] was opened for these people to enter because there is no broken door. That is, someone facilitated their entry here.”

On the night of the riot, Lula administration officials say, the president’s chief of staff, his justice and defense ministers, and the new security chief for the capital named to replace Torres arrived at the Space Age-style army headquarters at about 10:20 p.m. to negotiate the detention of insurrectionists and others in the protest camp. Military commanders agreed to allow security officials under Lula’s control to raid the camp, but not until 6 a.m. Monday. Administration officials say they believe that gave the military time to warn relatives and friends there to leave.

The security forces are one target in a rapidly expanding probe of an assault that has once again highlighted the danger to Western democracies from far-right extremists fueled by misinformation.

Investigators, working around the clock, are tracing the origins of social media posts that called on “patriots” to assemble and bring Brasília to a halt, accounts of businesses linked to the buses that brought rioters to the capital and data contained on 1,300 cellular phones seized from alleged insurrectionists.

Authorities have said they are investigating financial links to Brazil’s agribusiness interests, whom Bolsonaro championed while in office and who they say helped pay for the buses. Investigators say they are operating under the premise that Brazil’s large agricultural exporters are unlikely suspects, and are instead focusing on smaller companies tied to the illegal deforestation that flourished under Bolsonaro’s permissive approach to the environment. They note that a man arrested on Christmas Eve in connection to a bombing attempt in the capital came from Pará state in the Amazon region — a part of the country where illegal agribusiness thrives.

“Those who were involved in the coup d’etat were especially those involved in agribusiness outside the law,” Dino, the justice minister, told The Post. “The ones who occupy indigenous lands, public land, smuggle pesticides, fertilizers. People who operate in illegal mining. That’s the segment that’s going to appear.”

Sen. Carlos Portinho, the former leader of Bolsonaro’s government in the Senate, condemned the violence but also placed some of the responsibility for the security lapses on the Lula administration.

“Now we know 48 hours before Sunday, they were warned this could happen, and 20 hours before Sunday, they dismounted all the security planning,” Portinho said. “This is national security. I think it was a general lack in the government of Brasília but certainly as well in the Ministry of Defense and Lula.”

Lula’s government has said it was aware of plans for a protest but said the security plan was downscaled without their knowledge by pro-Bolsonaro state officials.

Social media posts calling bolsonaristas to the capital mention the company and name of one Brazilian billionaire close to Bolsonaro repeatedly. But authorities say they do not yet have enough evidence to pursue that figure.

The details uncovered by the investigation relate mostly to what officials describe as the surface of the plot: a network of smaller businesses, including transportation and tourism companies based in Brazil’s south, a Bolsonaro stronghold.

Government lawyers have asked a federal court to block $1.3 million in assets belonging to 52 people and seven businesses. The businesses are allegedly part of a network of local sponsors and organizers that in some cases helped raise donations for the Sunday gathering.

One is a small rural agribusiness union in Castro in Paraná state. Its Facebook page, which is no longer available, includes a group photo with a Bolsonaro campaign poster and a letter last year expressing solidarity with protesters against an “excessively activist” Supreme Court, a frequent target of bolsonarista criticism.

The union said it defends democratic values ​​and legal orders expressed in the Brazilian constitution. “We do not condone demonstrations that transcend the limits of the established order,” it said in a statement published Friday by the news outlet O Globo.

Other businesses on the list appear to be small tourism or transportation agencies whose buses were used by protesters. Two of them acknowledged renting out vehicles but said they did not know they would be used to transport people to the capital to participate in an insurrection. At least one has denied transporting protesters.

Word of the buses spread through WhatsApp groups as well as Telegram and YouTube channels.

The Brazilian technology firm Palver monitors more than 17,000 public WhatsApp groups and other social media used to organize the trips. Many of those who asked for donations, Palver President Felipe Bailez said, were relatively obscure — YouTubers with 50,000 or fewer followers, for example.

Bus organizers and protesters have described the event as the expression of a grass-roots movement in which many bolsonaristas paid for their own bus tickets or gathered small donations from friends and family. But thousands of WhatsApp messages tell a different story, Bailez said, with local organizers offering to cover bus rides, meals and other expenses free of charge.

“I think there were [more powerful] authorities and entrepreneurs and politicians and hardcore bolsonaristas involved in this,” Bailez said. “But I really believe there was a lot of organic engagement from small-business owners and people in various cities of Brazil. … I don’t think it was completely planned by one person or a group of people.”

Rodrigo Jorge Amaral, 44, owns a tourism company in Florianópolis, the capital of Santa Catarina state on Brazil’s southern coast. He had just traveled to Brasília to protest Lula’s inauguration when he started to receive messages about another trip. Some came from U.S. phone numbers, with California and Florida area codes.

“Are you going to Brasília?”

Members of his local pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups, some of whom had come together for a trucker strike in 2018, knew he owned a bus. He started responding to the messages with a cut-and-pasted response.

“BRASÍLIA URGENT,” he wrote. A bus would be leaving the island city from a pier at 8 p.m. Jan. 6. He initially charged people 650 reals, or about $127, But organizers gathered enough donations, Amaral said, that they were able to cover the trip. He would not identify the donors, saying they were worried about being targeted by authorities.

Amaral said his group arrived in Brasília after protesters had already entered the buildings. He said he knew people wanted to go inside the buildings but not to damage them.

Many who traveled to Brasília have said they did not know about plans to storm the buildings. Still unclear is when and how the mob decided to invade the buildings — and whether anyone in particular gave the order.

Bailez, who has scoured WhatsApp messages from that day, said he hasn’t seen a direct instruction.

“I saw some guy saying, ‘I’m here in Brasília and we’re taking over the Congress,’ and some other guy saying, ‘We’re going to explode this building.’ Some other guy would say, ‘We need to destroy everything.’

“I think that they started getting excited, and it was like a snowball.”

But he did notice WhatsApp accounts using a bomb emoji as early as two days before Sunday’s riot. In one national WhatsApp group, there was also a step-by-step plan on what to do before entering government buildings. The manual told protesters never to start an invasion without a crowd and never to try to take “two powers at the same time.”

One man in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo said he was organizing a bus to travel to Brasília but was spooked by messages circulating in a Telegram group called “Taking power.”

On the day before the riot, he said, it became clear to him that some wanted to try to enter government buildings. He decided to cancel his bus, he said.

“After Bolsonaro announced he was going abroad, they sensed they needed to change the strategy,” the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

“They needed to separate the men from the boys,” he said. “Only the men who could act upon it should come to Brasília.”

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