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Brazilian officials knew about the protest, thought they could contain it



BRASÍLIA – At least five days before a horde of right-wing rioters storm government buildings in the heart of Brazil’s democracy, the call went out via Telegram and WhatsApp. The message, shared by groups of staunch supporters of the country’s former Trumpian President, Jair Bolsonaro, urged truckers, farmers, cattle ranchers, gun owners, business leaders and the “Brazilian people” to act.


Following the extraordinary assault on Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace, authorities launched a wave of arrests – at least 1,500 as of Monday night – a spider’s web of investigations into shadowy financiers and a salvo of recriminations on the failing security. As Brazilians lamented the destruction of their country’s iconic federal buildings — shattered glass, shattered furniture, a canvas perforated by Brazilian master Emiliano Di Cavalcanti — they were also taking stock of the rot at the heart of their democracy: a horde radicalized political fanatics who survive on a steady diet of misinformation and conspiracy theory.

Sunday’s rallying cry came after a massive security operation for the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the lion of the Latin American left who beat Bolsonaro in the tightest election in history. from Brazil. Bolsonaro, who for years cast doubt on the reliability of elections in Brazil, refused to concede, leading his supporters to believe the election had been stolen.

Since Bolsonaro’s electoral defeat 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 the evidence to the contrary, the Bolsonarists were confident that the Brazilian generals would act to prevent Lula’s January 1 inauguration. When that did not happen, authorities said, the message appeared to turn into a provocation of military action through a show of public force.

Donors from at least 10 Brazilian states, some linked to big agribusiness interests in Brazil, a mainstay of Bolsonaro support, have covered the costs of buses to ferry thousands more Bolsonarians to the capital in recent days, authorities said. .

For weeks, would-be rioters have been fed conspiracy theories via social media. One claimed Bolsonaro went to Florida to escape an assassination plot. Another cast Lula as a Communist ready to impose a pro-LGBTQ, pro-abortion “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 the Federal District of Brasilia, that any was under control.

Not only was the security presence on Sunday much smaller than on inauguration day, but some police – a security force seen as favorable to Bolsonaro – had failed to erect barricades that Lula officials said would have prevented the rioters to enter the Plaza of the Three Powers, seat of Congress, the Planalto Palace and the Supreme Court.

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

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

Dino said his first idea of ​​a problem with security was a 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.

On Sunday, Dino said, “the fundamental element of our [security] plan with the governor of [Brasília] has not been fulfilled. I could see from the Justice Department window that the Military Police contingent was not what was agreed upon between us and the Governor.

The Supreme Court suspended Rocha as governor of the Federal District on Sunday night. Some administration officials say he may have been misinformed by his security guards or simply mishandled the operation. Others believe he intentionally misled the government.

Rocha did not respond to a request for comment. He condemned the insurgency and sacked its security chief on Sunday, denied collusion with rioters and apologized to Lula for the security lapses.

“I can’t say what the governor did to tighten security, but he was complicit,” said Pimenta, Lula’s senior adviser. “It was part of this coup attempt.”

Either way, the result was January 6 in Brazil – a replay of the 2021 uprising by Donald Trump supporters on the US Capitol, this time dubbed into Portuguese. The parallels were striking. Two far-right presidents who lost elections both refused to back down, giving oxygen to radicalized, conspiracy theory-driven supporters who had lost the ability to separate truth from fiction. In Brasília as in Washington, they peddled staggering contradictions – seeing themselves as patriots and defenders of democracy even when they would have engaged in treason to undermine it.

“These people [on Sunday] were driven by conspiracy theories,” said Tai Nalon, executive director of fact-checking organization Aos Fatos. “They believe leftists are taking over. Their argument was that this communist agenda would install LGBTQ rights, unisex toilets and abortion. It is not logical. It’s just against what they consider a conservative way of thinking, and they boil it all down and call it “communism”, even though that’s not what communism is, and nothing close to communism does not happen in Brazil.

The assault on the government, long predicted by analysts who saw the Bolsonarists following the MAGA playbook, shook the nation. Authorities have made mass arrests and promised many more. On Monday morning, military police and armed forces acting on court orders finally evacuated protesters from the camp that had been in front of army headquarters for nearly 70 days. About 1,200 bolsonarists were arrested. They were loaded onto 40 buses; some waved the Brazilian flag as they were led away.

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

A senior Brazilian official said authorities were tracking the electronic transfers that funded the buses that carried Bolsonarists to Brasilia last week. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, declined to name the suspects. But this official and another who spoke similarly said “some” of the financiers were involved in Brazil’s agribusiness. One of the officials said a Rio de Janeiro-based hotelier appeared to be involved.

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

Despite his own justice minister’s admissions that officials had advance knowledge of potential attacks in Brasilia, Lula insisted Monday night that Sunday’s events had taken him by surprise. He criticized police and intelligence officials for “neglecting their duty” and claimed the police colluded with the rioters.

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

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

She said she has been camping outside military headquarters since Lula was declared the winner on election day. She said she heard Bolsonaro fled to Florida “because otherwise he would be killed” by a militia led by Alexandre de Moraes, a senior Supreme Court justice and a sworn enemy of Bolsonaro.

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

On Sunday night, the Supreme Court blocked 17 pro-Bolsonaro influencers for allegedly helping coordinate the attacks. As in the aftermath of the US insurgency, right-wing supporters in Brazil on Monday sought to distance their icon – Bolsonaro – from the assault, while blaming left-wing infiltrators for the violence.

“Are these infiltrators [leftists] who promoted chaos and vandalism yesterday will be held responsible? Carlos Jordy, a pro-Bolsonaro lawmaker from Rio, asked in a tweet on Monday.

The objective of Sunday’s assault remains unclear. Pimenta said the Bolsonarists hoped to unleash a level of chaos that would trigger a law granting the military extraordinary powers to enforce peace — as happened in the hillside slums of Rio in 2014 as the country was preparing to host the World Cup and the Olympics. Games.

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

Many say it is difficult to determine a logical rationale. Conspiracy theories circulating around Telegram and WhatsApp groups in recent days have suggested that some Bolsonarians believe Lula and Moraes will be arrested in some sort of coordinated operation as they storm government buildings on Sunday.

No such plan seemed to exist.

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

“False evidence is circulating online – that someone has found a document that proves Lula will be arrested. It’s not true. But [to them] it does not matter.

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