They were scenes reminiscent of the storming of the United States Capitol almost exactly two years ago, a violent and predictable assault on Brazil’s state institutions that was supported by numerous police officers. Since Friday, followers of right-wing radical ex-President Jair Bolsonaro had been gathering in Brasilía, allegedly for a protest in front of the National Congress. Bolsonaro’s hardcore supporters refuse to accept his defeat at the hands of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in late October. For the past several weeks, they have been demanding that the military take over.
On Saturday alone, hundreds of buses full of Bolsonaro supporters from around the country arrived in the capital. The justice minister warned security officials of the impending danger and asked that the Esplanada dos Ministerios, the vast mall leading to the National Congress, and Three Powers Plaza – so named because it is home to the Congress, the presidential office and the country’s highest court – be closed to demonstrators.
But the Civil Police of the Federal District, which is in charge of security in Brasilía, did nothing. Indeed, they even escorted the "demonstrators" in the direction of the seat of government. And those gathered in the crowd had made no secret that they were planning a raid of the kind undertaken by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021. For days, Bolsonaro supporters had been discussing the storming of the National Congress in WhatsApp groups.
When the Bolsonaro followers then assaulted the building on Sunday, some police officers could be seen laughing and taking photos with their mobile phones. The chief of security for the Federal District, Anderson Torres, who had served as justice minister under Bolsonaro, has since been sacked. He was on his way to Florida, likely to meet with his former boss, who relocated to the U.S. state after losing the election. It is considered possible that Torres had known about the coming assault on the country’s parliament, or even took part in planning it.
The governor of the Federal District, Ibaneis Rocha, also a former Bolsonaro ally, promised that he would mobilize more police officers. By then, though, it was already too late. Some security personnel, armed with pepper spray, tried in vain to hold back the mob.
Thousands of people stormed Three Powers Plaza, with hundreds of them forcing their way into the National Congress building, the presidential palace and the seat of the Supreme Federal Court. They laid waste to offices and plenary halls, posing in the Senate and filming with their mobile phones. Only after about an hour were the police able to drive the vandals out of the presidential palace and the high court with the help of teargas. Thousands of people were still gathered out in front of the National Congress building.
Late Sunday night, the Supreme Federal Court suspended Rocha for 90 days, saying he did too little to prevent the violence.
Brazil’s parliament and highest court are on summer break until the end of the month. Lula was also out of the capital when the raids commenced, visiting victims of severe recent rainfall in the city of Araraquara in the state of São Paulo. His face flushed with anger, Lula addressed the press on Sunday night prior to returning to Brasilía, saying the federal government would intervene in the security apparatus of the Federal District, essentially placing the capital’s security in the hands of the president. "These people are fascists," Lula said of the vandals, promising that all those who participated in or helped plan the raids would be "found and penalized." He accused Bolsonaro of having inspired the storming of Brazil’s democratic institutions. "Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the Republic," he said.
Questions about the Security Forces
Lula only took over the presidency a week ago. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians celebrated his return to power, with Brasilía gripped by a party atmosphere. But that atmosphere has now vanished. The threat to Brazil’s democracy did not come to an end with Lula’s inauguration and is likely to continue hanging over the country for the next several months. The most pressing question is how the country’s security forces and military will respond.
Sunday’s riot has once again demonstrated the degree to which the country’s militarily organized police forces, which are under the control of the state governors, have been infiltrated by Bolsonaro supporters. Lula can really only trust the federal police force, but even there, he must be wary. The military has thus far stayed in the background and there doesn’t appear to be an imminent threat of a military putsch. But that doesn’t mean that the troops will readily obey all orders from the president, who is the commander-in-chief of Brazil’s armed forces.
Lula’s justice minister twice ordered the military to clear the tent camp that Bolsonaro followers established in front of army headquarters in Brasilía after Lula’s election on October 30. That tent camp is where radical Bolsonaro followers prepared the "protests" against Lula’s victory ceremony on Dec. 13, during which numerous buses and cars were set on fire. The radical Bolsonaro acolyte who placed an explosive device on a tanker truck intending to blow it up at the Brasilía airport also claims to have planned his attack here. But the military did nothing.
A week ago, tent-camp occupants threatened DER SPIEGEL correspondent Jens Glüsing when he visited the site. Guards from army headquarters escorted the journalist out, but they told him they could not guarantee his safety.
The radical Bolsonaro fans are a minority among the ex-president’s supporters. They resemble a religious sect and live in a parallel world – and are incited by radical pastors from Pentecostal churches that support Bolsonaro. Lula’s government is led by "demons," said one camp occupant who called herself "Eva." "We are experiencing the day of the Apocalypse." Whereas many of Bolsonaro’s former political allies have distanced themselves from him in recent weeks, his hardcore supporters remain loyal. And they forgive him for having left the country for Florida. "I would have fled as well," Eva told DER SPIEGEL. After all, she added, Bolsonaro is being persecuted.
Initially on Sunday, Bolsonaro remained silent about the violence in Brasilía. Late last night, though, he turned to Twitter to reject Lula’s contention that he had incited the riots. Peaceful demonstrations, he wrote, are part of democracy, but the storming of government buildings went too far.
- Manifestações pacíficas, na forma da lei, fazem parte da democracia. Contudo, depredações e invasões de prédios públicos como ocorridos no dia de hoje, assim como os praticados pela esquerda em 2013 e 2017, fogem à regra.— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) January 9, 2023
If it is proven that Bolsonaro had incited the mob’s raid on Brazil’s democratic institutions, he could be arrested immediately upon his return to the country. It remains unclear how the U.S. might react to Bolsonaro’s presence on American soil given the suspicions that he may have been behind what amounts to an attempted putsch. Bolsonaro likely feels relatively safe in proximity to Trump in Florida, but U.S. President Joe Biden, one suspects, isn’t pleased about hosting right-wing radicals from Brazil.
On Sunday evening, governments from across Latin America and Europe expressed their solidarity with President Lula and the Brazilian democracy. The gesture of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who met Lula before he was sworn in and was photographed arm-in-arm with the Brazilian president-elect, carries new meaning against the backdrop of Sunday. And it is clear that Lula is dependent on the international support of all democracies.
But the crisis in Brazil is far from over.