World News

How a Mob Tried to Oust Brazil’s Lula

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.

“You might escape a lightning strike,” another man said, as if confronting Mr. Lula himself. “But you won’t escape me.”

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.

The rampage in the heart of Brazil’s capital has put the nation at perhaps its most challenging political juncture since civilian leaders replaced a 21-year military dictatorship in 1985.

Brazil had weathered graft scandals and huge protests, tense elections and economic crises, presidents impeached and imprisoned. But with election deniers drawing inspiration from counterparts in the United States, the attack revealed how vulnerable Brazil’s democracy is.

Many of those who carried out the assault on Brazil’s democratic institutions plotted in broad daylight, announcing their plans on social media. But intelligence officials issued warnings that went unheeded.

And as federal investigators follow money trails around Brazil, it is becoming clear that business elites and Bolsonaro allies were instrumental in financing the protests that eventually turned violent.

Still, Brazil’s biggest challenge could be that a sizable portion of the country has lost faith in its democracy, despite no credible evidence of electoral fraud.

While Brazil’s institutions formed a united front against any attempt by Mr. 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, Mr. Lula ascended the ramp to Brazil’s presidential offices and accepted the green and gold presidential sash — not from Mr. Bolsonaro, as the law prescribed, but from a woman who collects trash to recycle. Mr. Bolsonaro had already decamped for Florida.

For roughly half the country, it was the welcome end to four years of tumult under Mr. Bolsonaro. But for millions of other Brazilians, it was the completion of an elaborate crime — a stolen election that they had been begging the military to overturn for two months.

Days later, calls went out across pro-Bolsonaro corners of the internet — in tweets, TikTok videos, Telegram channels and WhatsApp groups — for an enormous Sunday demonstration in the capital, right where Mr. Lula’s supporters had celebrated a week before.

Some digital fliers promised a party, while others called for something far more serious. There were messages that demanded blocked highways and oil refineries, and others that took aim at the heart of government.

“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, with each building circled.

“We need journalists from around the world to report on this moment,” another person responded, “so it will become marked in Brazil’s history.”

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. “It didn’t seem serious,” he said, “and it wasn’t big enough to be serious.”

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.

On Sunday morning, the mood on Brasília’s vast avenues was eerily calm, even as those gathering vowed to sow chaos.

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!”

A surge of bodies, many draped in the Brazilian flag, rushed toward Congress. Many protesters ran directly to the wide ramp leading to the capitol’s flat roof.

On the roof, protesters painted “Armed Forces SOS” and unfurled a banner proclaiming “We Want the Source Code,” referring to a conspiracy theory that the electronic voting machines were programmed for Mr. Lula.

A gray-haired woman sank to her knees and raised her hands to the sky. “A warrior!” Mr. Freitas shouted as he filmed her.

A popcorn vendor set up shop next to the reflecting pool, while a man with a stick piled high with cotton candy ascended the ramp with the crowd.

Inside, hundreds of people were laying waste. Some lifted metal pillars and smashed glass panels. Others entered the legislative chambers and scoured offices for plunder. They damaged artworks, stole computers and left a trail of glass shards.

“It was insanity,” said Adriana Reis, 30, who was cleaning Congress when the invaders rushed in. “I don’t think the police could handle them all.”

It was one thing to occupy Congress. But taking the fight to the chambers of Mr. Bolsonaro’s main foes, Mr. Lula and the Supreme Court, was another.

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.

The rioters made quick work of devastating much of the Supreme Court, leaving the courtroom where justices decide cases in shambles. Rioters made off with the Brazilian republic’s coat of arms, a copy of Brazil’s Constitution and even the robes used by the justices.

By 3:45 p.m., the ramp to the Planalto, where Mr. Lula had accepted the presidential sash, was filled with rioters.

“Look here!” said Ms. Azevedo, continuously chronicling the attack, as she reached the top of the ramp. “Lula’s palace!”

Inside, the assailants overturned furniture, stole stun guns and damaged valuable treasures, including a Modernist painting by Emiliano di Cavalcanti. But they were stopped at Mr. Lula’s office, his spokesman explained, because it is reinforced with bulletproof glass.

Outside, some police officers tried fighting back, firing rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters, including from two helicopters.

At one point, rioters swarmed a lone police officer on horseback. They beat him with sticks and flagpoles, and then they beat the horse.

Elsewhere, however, officers stood and watched. One video shows about 10 police officers chatting with protesters, texting and filming on their phones as rioters they were expected to stop swarmed the nation’s Congress.

Pedro Lustosa, a graduate student who went to watch the protests, noticed the nonchalance of some police officers and began filming. At 3:38 p.m., three-quarters of a mile down the esplanade, he encountered a group of nearly 20 officers chatting and asked them if he could take a dip in the reflecting pool in front of Congress.

“Everything is allowed today?” he asked. The officers appear to respond affirmatively, and waved him in the direction of Congress.

The government estimates there were roughly 5,000 protesters, said Mr. Cappelli, the justice ministry official, while the district later reported that it had assigned 1,300 police to the event. (The national police force also had nearly 200 officers there, he said.)

But Mr. 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: Mr. Torres, a Bolsonaro ally.

Mr. Rocha, the governor, also laid the blame on Mr. Torres and his team. “The governor was deceived,” said Alberto Toron, Mr. Rocha’s lawyer.

At 4:43 p.m., Mr. Rocha fired Mr. Torres, six days after he took the job.

At about 6 p.m., Mr. Lula made an emergency decree. Mr. 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.

At the Planalto, soldiers formed a barrier to stop any more intruders. “Military intervention — against the Brazilian people!” Mr. Freitas shouted at them.

Other soldiers went inside. Many rioters then sat down, some praying, and begged the troops to side with them. Ms. Azevedo was among them, smiling into her camera and saluting.

At the camp, some protesters hurriedly departed with their things. Several admitted to storming the federal buildings. One said he still had a stolen flag. But in a dozen interviews, all insisted that Bolsonaro supporters did not cause the damage; it was leftists in disguise.

“Proof? No,” said Antônio Morim, a trucker. “But they started it.”

Ms. Azevedo was among those arrested. She had spent years trying to gain fame in Brazil’s right-wing circles, and now, in custody, her videos were rocketing around the internet.

Her compatriots were also posting about her — but not in the way she had imagined.

“Look who broke everything,” read the text on a video of Ms. Azevedo shouting in a ransacked room of the Planalto, which was posted by right-wing accounts. “Priscilla vandalized and framed us patriots who were protesting peacefully.”

Story produced by Nailah Morgan and Hanaan Sarhan.

Ana Ionova, Flávia Milhorance and André Spigariol contributed reporting. Leonardo Coelho, Yan Boechat, Haley Willis and Robin Stein contributed research.

Sahred From Source link World News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *