‘We Will Die for Brazil’: How a Far-Right Mob Tried to Oust 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.
Video posted on social media shows dozens of Bolsonaro supporters arriving in Brasília by bus.CreditCredit…Jakelyne Loiola, via Twitter
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 Mr. Lula, who had taken office just a week earlier.
The chaotic attack bore an unsettling resemblance to the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol: Hundreds of right-wing protesters, claiming an election was rigged, stomping through the halls of power.
Each episode rattled one of the world’s largest democracies, and almost two years to the day after the U.S. attack, last Sunday’s assault showed that far-right extremism, inspired by antidemocratic leaders and fed by conspiracy theories, remains a grave threat.
Mr. Lula and judicial authorities have moved swiftly to reassert control, arresting more than 1,150 rioters, clearing the encampments that gave them refuge and searching for their funders and organizers.
But questions continue to swirl about how a relatively small band of unarmed protesters, who had largely publicized their plans, were able so easily to storm the country’s most important government buildings.
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, led by what appeared to be a relatively small group of extremists bent on destruction, 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, in at least one case, waved a spectator toward Congress.
The imbalance between protesters and the 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 ordered the arrest of two top security officials who worked for him.
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. Intelligence officials issued warnings that went unheeded, while some of the police tasked with protecting the capital appeared to be sympathetic to the rioters, snapping photos as the mob tore through Congress.
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 biggest country.
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.
Understand the Riots in Brazil’s Capital
Thousands of rioters supporting Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former president of Brazil, stormed the nation’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices on Jan. 8.
- Anatomy of a Mass Attack: After Mr. Bolsonaro lost the presidential election in October, many believed that the threat of violence from his supporters would recede. Here is what went wrong.
- The Investigations: Authorities face several major questions as they piece together how rioters briefly seized the seats of Brazil’s government.
- Digital Playbook: Misinformation researchers are studying how the internet was used ahead of the riots in Brazil. Many are drawing a comparison to the Jan. 6 attack.
- The Role of the Police: Their early inaction in the riot shows how security forces can help empower violence and deepen the threat to democracy.
“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?”
At his inauguration, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accepted the presidential sash from a woman selected to represent the people.Credit…Carl De Souza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
‘It Didn’t Seem Serious’
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.
The federal government pays the district $2 billion each year to provide security, and had been satisfied with the results. The 2022 election was tense but every gathering in Brasília was peaceful.
Yet on the day after the inauguration, there was an abrupt change in the district’s security apparatus. On Jan. 2, the district’s security chief was replaced with Anderson Torres, Mr. Bolsonaro’s former justice minister and a leading force behind the baseless claims that Brazil’s electronic voting systems are rife with fraud. (Reviews have never uncovered evidence of fraud, and audits of the election system by independent security experts have concluded it is safe.)
Mr. Torres quickly replaced much of his department’s senior staff.
On Jan. 6, two days before the planned protest, 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. The 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, Mr. Dino learned from a news article that, in fact, Mr. Rocha had decided to open it to demonstrators.
The size of the police contingent, Mr. Dino later told reporters, was woefully inadequate “to let them go down the esplanade.”
Mr. Rocha has said the size of the force was Mr. Torres’s responsibility.
On Saturday, Mr. Torres was already in Florida for the start of a two-week vacation.
‘A Totally Peaceful Protest’
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!”
Around midday, Mr. Rocha, the governor, received an audio message from an official filling in for Mr. Torres, the security chief. “Everything is calm,” the official said. “A totally peaceful protest.”
By early afternoon, protesters were reaching the end of the esplanade and the start of Congress’s front yard — the perimeter the police were supposed to protect. Two rows of temporary metal fencing, about 200 yards wide, marked the barrier. On the two streets flanking the front yard, there were movable roadblocks. Scattered along the front line were just a few dozen police officers.
The Modernist buildings they were protecting were largely empty, with Congress adjourned and Mr. Lula in São Paulo. But by 2:30 p.m., a crowd was collecting outside.
“People are still arriving,” Bruno Gomides, a former candidate for state representative, said in a Facebook livestream. “Let’s see what develops.” The atmosphere was relatively tranquil.
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.
Cell phone video obtained by The Times shows the moment protesters breached a security barrier set up by the police on Sunday.
‘The People Have Invaded Congress’
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.
During their inaugurations, new presidents ascend that ramp and another at the Planalto, making it a symbol of taking power. Within minutes, it was crowded with protesters.
The police immediately launched tear-gas canisters, with the explosions and smoke transforming the atmosphere. On their way to Congress, protesters dipped their bandannas in a reflecting pool and put them over their faces to ward off the effects of the gas.
“I got used to the burning,” Ana Carolina Isique Guardieri, a veterinarian, said into her phone, adding that she had helped pull down the barrier. “This here is ours.”
As approaching protesters spotted the crowds atop Congress, they, too, began storming ahead.
“The people have invaded Congress!” shouted Joelson Sebastião Freitas as he jogged and filmed. “God bless Brazil!”
The mood was pure euphoria. The protesters had never accepted Mr. Bolsonaro’s electoral defeat, and now, finally, they felt in control again. Ms. Azevedo, the internet influencer, filmed herself celebrating on the ramp with a group of men. “Mission accomplished!” they shouted in unison.
Ana Priscila Azevedo live-streamed celebrations in the crowd as they approached Brazil’s Congress.CreditCredit…Ana Priscila Azevedo
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.
Video shows the damage inside Brazil’s Supreme Court, after rioters ransacked a courtroom.
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!” Windows were smashed and a man sprayed a fire extinguisher into the air.
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.
Protesters walk through the smoke-filled interior of the presidential office building.CreditCredit…@Metropoles via Twitter
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.
Demonstrators attacked a policeman on horseback outside Brazil’s Congress.CreditCredit…@eixopolitico via Twitter
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 and began filming. At 3:38 p.m., he encountered a group of nearly 20 officers chatting and asked them if he could take a dip in the esplanade’s reflecting pool.
“Everything is allowed today?” he asked. The officers appear to respond affirmatively, and wave 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.
‘Military Intervention Against the Brazilian People!’
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.
Ana Priscila Azevedo inside the Planalto.CreditCredit…Ana Priscila Azevedo
The authorities arrested 210 people on the scene, many led back down the ramps in handcuffs.
That night, the Supreme Court suspended Governor Rocha for 90 days. Later the court approved a federal police request for arrest warrants against Mr. Torres and the district police chief.
Mr. Torres said he would return to Brazil to defend himself. “I have always guided my actions with ethics and legality,” he said on Twitter.
The next morning, authorities swept a long-running protest camp outside the Army headquarters, detaining 1,200 people.
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.