Supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro, who were arrested after attacking democratic
institutions, leave the headquarters of the federal police in Brasilia, Brazil, on Jan. 10, 2023.
By ANA IONOVA, ANDRÉ SPIGARIOL and JACK NICAS
Brazilian authorities on Tuesday issued arrest warrants for two government security officials, zeroed in on people suspected of funding this week’s violent protests and asked a federal court to freeze the assets of the far-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro, a broad expansion of the investigation into the invasion of Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices by protesters on Sunday.
The moves showed that, a day after arresting hundreds of people suspected of taking part in Sunday’s riot in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, the nation’s top officials have now turned their focus to the political and business elites suspected of inspiring, organizing or aiding the rioters.
Alexandre de Moraes, a Brazilian Supreme Court justice, issued the warrants for the two security officials, including Anderson Torres, the man effectively in charge of security for the capital, in response to a request by federal police.
Moraes, a controversial figure who has been accused of severely overstepping his authority, said investigators had evidence that the officials knew violence was brewing but did nothing to stop it. He said that they were under investigation for terrorism, criminal association and offenses related to the violent overthrow of democracy.
Separately on Tuesday, a top public prosecutor asked a federal court to freeze Bolsonaro’s assets in connection with the investigation into the riots, though his office declined to explain why.
Protesters invaded government buildings under the false belief that October’s presidential election, which Bolsonaro lost, was rigged, their actions spurred in part because of his yearslong efforts to undermine the electorate’s faith in Brazil’s election systems.
The request to freeze Bolsonaro’s assets is now in the hands of a judge, but it is unclear whether the court has the legal power to block his accounts. And freezing assets, even if it were not challenged in court, could prove a lengthy and complex process.
Authorities are also expected to take action against more than 100 companies thought to have helped the protesters, including many believed to have transported rioters to the capital or to have provided them with free food and shelter, according to Brazilian media reports.
Brazil’s new justice minister, Flávio Dino, said government investigators had zeroed in on companies in at least 10 states that were suspected of having helped finance the riots. Authorities were seeking arrest warrants for “people who did not come to Brasília, but who participated in the crime, who are organizers, financiers,” Dino said Tuesday.
Dino and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have said that they believe prominent players in the country’s powerful agriculture industry, which largely backed Bolsonaro in the election, played a role.
“These people were there today, the agribusiness,” Lula said after the attacks, adding that “all these people will be investigated, found out, and will be punished.”
The moves highlighted the growing scope of the hunt to identify the ideological, logistical and financial architects of Sunday’s chaos, the worst attack on Brazil’s institutions since a military dictatorship ended in 1985.
Many people who participated in the riots had been camped out for weeks outside the army headquarters in Brasília, espousing the false claim that October’s election was stolen and calling for the military to step in. Military and independent experts found no credible evidence of voter fraud in the election, in which Lula, a leftist former president, defeated Bolsonaro. Lula took office on Jan. 1.
While Bolsonaro had for years asserted, without evidence, that Brazil’s election systems were plagued by fraud, after the election he authorized the transition of power to Lula. Bolsonaro, who has been in the United States since before the inauguration, criticized the rioters on Sunday, saying that peaceful demonstrations were part of democracy but that the “destruction and invasions of public buildings” was not.
In the wake of the riot, investigators are grappling with difficult questions about why rioters were able to enter federal government buildings so easily — and whether security authorities were blindsided, negligent or somehow complicit.
Some officials have been quick to place much of the blame on Torres, who served as Bolsonaro’s justice minister before becoming security chief of the Federal District, a small province that includes Brasília, on Jan. 2. That position made him largely in charge of the security plans for the protest on Sunday.
Yet upon taking the new job, Torres quickly dismissed several key officials in his staff and then left for a vacation to Florida, leaving him out of the state during Sunday’s protests, according to Ricardo Cappelli, who has temporarily replaced Torres under an emergency decree signed by Lula.
In an interview with the Brazilian newspaper O Globo on Tuesday, Cappelli said that in the days ahead of the large planned protests on Sunday, Torres assured the federal government that his team was in control.
“What reached us was information saying that everything was fine, that the demonstration would be peaceful and that the troops would guarantee it,” he said.
In comments to reporters on Tuesday, Cappelli accused Torres of purposefully “sabotaging” the security around the protests. As soon as Torres took over on Jan. 2, he said, “Chaos ensues. Coincidence? I don’t think so.”
Federal officials have also said that, during a planning meeting two days before the protests, Torres and other officials promised a far more robust security presence during the demonstrations than what they delivered.
State officials have said they accepted responsibility for the failures, but have not explained why security was light, despite warnings of the possibility of violent protests.
Torres said on Twitter that he would cut his vacation short and return to Brazil to defend himself. “I have always guided my actions with ethics and legality. I believe in the Brazilian justice system and in the strength of the institutions. I am certain that the truth will prevail,” he said.
Torres has long been a close ally of Bolsonaro. As the former president’s justice minister, Torres was a key player in the attacks against Brazil’s electronic voting machines. In July 2021, Bolsonaro announced that he would lay out his full case on why Brazil’s election system was rife with fraud. In a subsequent two-hour livestream, Torres sat next to him and presented videos claiming to show how voting machines could be hacked, which security experts later debunked.
Responding to requests from the federal police, Moraes issued warrants for the arrest of Torres and Fabio Augusto Vieira, chief of the Federal District’s police. Moraes said the arrests were necessary to protect the investigation, preventing the suspects from destroying evidence or intimidating witnesses.
Brazil’s solicitor general also issued a request for Torres’ arrest, while another top federal prosecutor requested to freeze his assets. That prosecutor also asked to freeze the assets of the Federal District’s governor, Ibaneis Rocha, who has also been accused of allowing inadequate security during the protests.
Hours after the riots concluded, Moraes suspended Rocha from his job as governor for at least 90 days.
By Tuesday, the police had arrested 727 people in connection with the riots and were still questioning hundreds of others, the federal police said in a statement. Some 599 people who were detained for questioning had been released from custody.
Many rioters filmed themselves and others as they invaded the government buildings, giving authorities a body of evidence to build a case. Augusto de Arruda Botelho, Brazil’s justice secretary, said police had also collected DNA samples and fingerprints from the buildings.