‘We will die for Brazil’: How a far-right mob tried to oust Lula
President Jail Bolsonaro of Brazil speaks at his re-election campaign rally in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 14, 2022.
By JACK NICAS and SIMON ROMERO
As the bus made its way from Brazil’s agricultural heartland to the capital, Andrea Barth pulled out her phone to ask fellow passengers, one by one, what they intended to do once they arrived.
“Overthrow the thieves,” one man replied.
“Take out ‘Nine-Finger,’” said another, referring to Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who lost part of a finger decades ago in a factory accident.
As the passengers described their plans for violence, more than a hundred other buses bulging with supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former president, were also descending on Brasília, the capital.
A day later, on Jan. 8, a pro-Bolsonaro mob unleashed mayhem that shocked the country and was broadcast around the world. Rioters invaded and ransacked Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices, intending, many of them said, to spur military leaders to topple Lula, who had taken office a week earlier.
The assault showed that far-right extremism remains a grave threat.
Lula and judicial authorities have moved swiftly to reassert control, arresting more than 1,150 rioters, clearing the encampments that gave them refuge, searching for their funders and organizers and, on Friday, opening an investigation into how Bolsonaro may have inspired them.
The New York Times spoke with law enforcement, government officials, eyewitnesses and protesters, and reviewed dozens of videos and hundreds of social media posts to piece together what happened. The reporting shows that a mob swiftly and effortlessly overwhelmed a drastically outnumbered police presence.
It also shows that some officers not only failed to take any action against rioters, but they also appeared to be sympathetic, snapping photos as the mob tore through Congress.
The imbalance between protesters and police remains a central focus of the authorities’ investigation, and interviews with security officials yielded accusations of gross negligence and even active complicity in the mayhem. After the riot, federal authorities suspended the governor responsible for protecting the buildings and arrested two top security officials who worked for him.
While Brazil’s institutions formed a united front against any attempt by Bolsonaro to challenge the election’s results — the former president has absconded to a rental home near Disney World — his false claims about voter fraud have festered and spread across Latin America’s largest nation.
The morning after the riot, interviews with a dozen protesters showed that they were far from giving up and were even moving past the man who had once led them.
“We are not here for President Bolsonaro anymore. We are here for our nation, our freedom,” said Nathanael S. Viera, 51, who had driven 900 miles to fight against what he said was a communist plot. “Our future is being stolen. You understand?”
On New Year’s Day, Lula ascended the ramp to Brazil’s presidential offices and accepted the green and gold presidential sash from a woman who collects trash to recycle. Bolsonaro had already decamped for Florida.
Days later, calls went out across pro-Bolsonaro corners of the internet for an enormous Sunday demonstration in the capital, right where Lula’s supporters had celebrated a week before.
“The plan is to surround Brasília,” one person wrote in a Telegram group, attaching an aerial image of Congress, the Supreme Court and the Planalto Palace, headquarters of the presidency.
Yet the plans did not appear to overly alarm authorities.
Ricardo Cappelli, the No. 2 official at Brazil’s justice ministry, said that pro-Bolsonaro rallies had long taken on conspiratorial tones but had remained largely nonviolent. The planned protest’s location — the mile-long grassy esplanade that ends at Brazil’s Congress — has been the choice spot for Brazilians to vent their frustration for decades, sometimes with crowds in the hundreds of thousands.
Intelligence suggested that Sunday’s turnout would be just a few thousand.
While the esplanade is lined with the federal government’s most important buildings, a different entity has long handled security of demonstrations there: the district government that oversees Brasília.
The federal government pays the district $2 billion each year to provide security, and had been satisfied with the results.
Yet on Jan. 2, the district’s security chief was replaced with Anderson Torres, Bolsonaro’s former justice minister and a leading force behind the baseless claims that Brazil’s electronic voting systems are rife with fraud.
Torres quickly replaced much of his department’s senior staff.
On Jan. 6, the district held a meeting that yielded a four-page plan placing much of the security responsibility on the district police, according to a copy obtained by the Times. Police would stop protesters before they reached Congress, the plan said, and would consider closing the esplanade.
Flávio Dino, Brazil’s new justice minister, said that the next day, the district governor, Ibaneis Rocha, told him the esplanade would be kept off limits. Then, shortly before the protest, Dino learned from a news article that, in fact, Rocha had decided to open it to demonstrators.
The number of police officers, Dino later told reporters, was woefully inadequate “to let them go down the esplanade.”
Rocha has said the size of the force was Torres’ responsibility. On Saturday, Torres was in Florida for the start of a two-week vacation.
On Sunday morning, the mood on Brasília’s vast avenues was eerily calm.
Ana Priscila Azevedo, 38, an aspiring right-wing online influencer, had been posting one video after another in the lead-up to the attack. In one, she said Bolsonaro supporters planned to shut down at least eight refineries around the country to choke off gasoline supplies.
By Sunday morning, she was on the esplanade. At 11:20 a.m., she posted a video assuring followers that the stage was set for one of the most important moments of their lives. She had just spoken with two police officers, she said, and “they are completely on our side.”
Bolsonaro supporters began streaming en masse down the esplanade. As their numbers swelled, they grew more belligerent, chanting in unison, “We will die for Brazil!”
Around midday, Rocha, the governor, received an audio message from an official filling in for Torres, the security chief. “Everything is calm,” the official said.
Then, at 2:42 p.m., a surge of protesters reached one of the roadblocks. One group of protesters pulled the metal railing back, while another group pushed through the roadblock. A few police officers sprayed a chemical agent, but resistance was minimal.
Within seconds, the security line had fallen. The invasion had begun.
A surge of bodies rushed toward Congress. Many protesters ran directly to the wide ramp leading to the capitol’s flat roof.
As a mob tore through the capitol, another group headed about 300 yards to the Planalto, while a third headed 300 yards in the other direction to the Supreme Court. They easily broke into both.
By 3:45 p.m., the ramp to the Planalto was filled with rioters.
The government estimates there were roughly 5,000 protesters, said Cappelli, the justice ministry official, while the district later reported that it had assigned 1,300 police to the event.
But Cappelli said he believes there were “many fewer” than 1,300 officers present, and footage throughout the day shows them far outnumbered.
“The issue is not just the number — if the guidance is, ‘Stay there,’ or ‘Don’t get involved,’” he said. “It’s the command.”
The same forces had helped secure the inauguration and other protests, he added. What had changed was their new boss: Torres, a Bolsonaro ally.
Rocha also laid the blame on Torres and his team. “The governor was deceived,” said Alberto Toron, Rocha’s lawyer.
At 4:43 p.m., Rocha fired Torres, six days after he took the job.
About 6 p.m., Lula made an emergency decree. Cappelli was named the new head of district security and headed to the street, in a suit and tie, to direct the forces.
By that time, army soldiers, federal police and other reinforcements had arrived and were retaking the buildings. Authorities arrested 210 people on the scene.
That night, the Supreme Court suspended Rocha for 90 days. Later the court approved a federal police request for arrest warrants against Torres and the district police chief. On Saturday, Torres was arrested upon arriving in Brasília from Florida.
During a search of Torres’ home, authorities found a draft of a presidential decree that sought to effectively overturn the election. Torres has suggested he received the document from a third party and planned to throw it away.
The morning after the riot, authorities swept a long-running protest camp outside the army headquarters, detaining 1,200 people.