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‘Command your troops, damn it!’ How a series of security failures opened a path to insurrection in Brazil

<i>CNN/Getty Images</i><br/>The violence in Brazil
CNN/Getty Images
The violence in Brazil

By Katie Polglase, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Tara John and Rodrigo Pedroso, CNN

A sea of people, draped in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag, surge onto the roof of the country’s modernist congressional building in the capital Brasilia, a video shared on social media shows.

In the foreground, officers from the military police of Brazil’s Federal District, which includes Brasilia, can be seen standing, chatting or filming the crowds in the distance.

Their calm belies the chaos unfolding on January 8. For around four hours, thousands of far-right supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed all three branches of Brazil’s government — Congress, the Supreme Court, and presidential palace — overwhelming security forces and calling for the leftist incumbent Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to be ousted.

The violence has shocked the country, with many wanting answers as to how so many people managed to enter some of the most highly securitized buildings in the country, with practically no resistance. Questions are mounting as to whether members of the security forces tasked with protecting the area and their leaders were just overstretched, incompetent or even actively assisted the protesters.

Top Brazilian officials say that pre-agreed security plans were not carried out on the day.

CNN has analyzed a series of videos and livestreams posted on social media to explore the security failures that allowed an insurrection to take place with such extraordinary ease and found that some officers appeared friendly to the rioters, while many others seem woefully underprepared for the angry mob. CNN has not identified and spoken to the officers in the videos.

Videos show some police officers standing and watching the protestors as they stormed Congress, one even filmed the events. Credit: YouTube, Twitter and Telegram.

Authorities investigating the riots, like the Supreme Court, have pointed fingers at officials in Brasilia, and several Federal District security chiefs have been fired or issued with arrest warrants for alleged collusion since the Sunday riots.

“The Brasilia police neglected [the attack threat], Brasilia’s intelligence neglected it,” Lula claimed one day after the siege. He said that from the footage it was easy to see “police officers talking to the attackers. There was an explicit connivance of the police with the demonstrators.”

Suspicions of “connivance” have been fueled by his predecessor Bolsonaro’s close relationship with the military during his presidency, filling his then-cabinet with military chiefs. In the weeks leading up to the siege, supporters of the ex-leader and former army captain — who never explicitly conceded his election loss in October — camped outside army barracks across Brazil, calling for a military intervention to overturn Lula’s victory.

Bolsonaro has made false claims of election fraud, sowing doubt in the legitimacy of the election. He left for Florida more than a week before the insurrection.

Lula on Thursday also accused some people in the armed forces of complicity. “There were many people complicit in this. There were many from the (military police), many from the armed forces complicit,” he said during a press conference.

The Brazilian president said he doesn’t think of the events of January 8 as a “coup” but as a “smaller thing, a band of crazy people who haven’t realized that the election is over.”

The military police of the Federal District have not responded to CNN’s questions about the alleged security failures of their forces. Nor has the Army Command in Brasilia — which has yet to make a public statement on the riots.

Videos taken on January 8 suggest a reduced security presence compared to Lula’s inauguration a week before, at the same government complex, when more than 8,000 troops from military and civil forces were deployed.

On January 8, there were just 365 military police officers working in the area. After Lula authorized a federal intervention at around 6 p.m. local that evening, another 2,913 were summoned, a caretaker Federal District spokesperson told CNN. The leadership of the office has changed since the January 8 riots.

The army and civil police forces did not respond to CNN’s request for information on how many army troops and police forces were deployed to the area on Sunday.

The military police are investigating the events on January 8 and “will start procedures to investigate” the alleged conduct of “police agents who behaved differently from (how) they were supposed to,” Ricardo Cappelli, the caretaker head of security for the Federal District of Brasilia, who got the role Sunday after his predecessor was fired, said this week.

Days of planning

Sunday’s protests had been openly organized online days before and intelligence services were aware of their plans. Telegram conversations seen by CNN show people messaging as early as January 5 about their intentions to storm Brazil’s Congress.

One post mentions a plan to use the Zello phone app, which works like a walkie talkie, if the internet was disrupted. The same app was used by some US Capitol rioters on January 6, 2021.

Several others shared detailed maps of the parliamentary area, labeling clearly the Congress and Senate buildings as the assembly point.

Brazil’s intelligence agency said it issued daily alerts ahead of January 8 to the government and the federal district government, warning the protests would be large and violent, CNN Brasil reports.

Their intelligence was based on a warning raised by the country’s transport agency that an unusual volume of buses had been chartered to Brasilia. Both the Minister of Justice Flávio Dino and then-Federal District Governor Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro ally, were notified, said the intelligence agency.

Despite the warnings, on January 7, Rocha told a Federal District news portal, Metropoles, that the protest would go ahead on the Esplanade — a grassy stretch surrounded by governmental buildings that leads directly to Brazil’s seats of power.

In a press conference a day after the riot, Justice Minister Dino said special security plans had been agreed upon with the Federal District — which handles the defense of the governmental complex and was led by Rocha — but did not materialize on January 8. There was a “change in administrative orientation yesterday in which the planning, which did not allow people to enter the Esplanade, was changed at the last minute,” he said.

Rocha was removed from his post for three months on Sunday. He said he respected the decision in an official statement and had also apologized to officials, including Lula, for what happened that day, saying his team “did not believe at all that the demonstrations would take on the proportions that they did.” CNN has reached out to Rocha for comment.

When protesters, as planned, turned out in droves on January 8, they were met with little resistance.

Beginning from their encampment outside the army headquarters, they walked over 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) down Brasilia’s main avenue, the Monumental Axis, to Congress.

Prior to the breach of Congress, a long line of protesters march to the government complex. In one video, a military police officer appears to give a thumbs up while shaking hands with the pro-Bolsonaro crowd walking down the avenue. Some are even patting officers on the back.

Military police attempted to stop the protesters by the Esplanade of Ministries along Eixo Monumental at around 2:25 p.m. local time, live video posted on YouTube by a protester and reviewed by CNN shows. But they were quickly over-run by protesters, who broke through the barricades. Police attempted to pepper spray a few of them as they tried to maintain the barricade but were overwhelmed.

The time the crowds arrived outside Congress at around 2:45 p.m. local time. Videos showed some federal and military police units further attempting to block their way, but they were severely outnumbered.

Chaos ensued.

Another attempt by Brasilia’s military police to use pepper spray on protesters failed. The officers, standing behind a line of metal barricades, were quickly overwhelmed as the crowd surged through, tossing the barricades to the ground.

Police confront protestors with pepper spray as they approach Congress but are quickly overwhelmed. Credit: Twitter

Free to roam in Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Square), thousands of Bolsonaro supporters climbed the ramp leading to the Congress, which houses the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. They entered the buildings just before 3 p.m.

Videos from inside show overturned chairs and documents strewn on the floor as the crowds march through chanting pro-Bolsonaro slogans.

With the barricades gone, several military police officers simply watched the scene. One even filmed the protesters climbing onto the roof of Congress.

Meanwhile, outside the Congress building two federal police vans sat with smoke billowing from their windows, video shows. One has swerved off the road half-submerged in a lake.

The swarm of protesters also moved to the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace. Officers seemed once again unable to control the situation. Some on horseback were attacked near the Supreme Court, pulled to the ground and pummeled by rioters.

In the end, the crowd managed to break inside these buildings as well and wreak havoc.

Videos showed little coordination between police divisions and left some officers overwhelmed by the crowds. Credit: TikTok and Telegram

Lula has suggested that someone deliberately left the doors to the palace unlocked. It was “opened for these people to enter because there is no broken door. It means someone facilitated their entry here,” he told reporters Thursday.

While he waits for the dust to settle, “I want to see all the tapes recorded inside the Supreme Court, inside the palace. There were a lot of conniving agents. There were a lot of people from the MP (Military Police) conniving,” he added.

The January 8 videos found online seem to convey the chaos of the moment.

In one video, responders seem to struggle to coordinate and communicate as security forces seem overwhelmed as they try to gain control.

A military police officer shouts at soldiers from the presidential guard battalion to fight the invaders as they stand by the presidential Planalto Palace.

“Command your troops, damn it!” he yells at the battalion commander.

But the soldiers appear hesitant, and their leader remains silent as they struggle to make decisions while confronted by the horde.

As it approaches 7 p.m. local time, the police and army finally have things under control. A YouTube livestream shows crowds filing off the roof of Congress and leaving the governmental compound.

Two hours later, Bolsonaro condemns the day’s events, saying “peaceful demonstrations, respecting the law, are part of democracy. However, depredations and invasions… escape the rule.”

Brazil’s response to the riots has been swift. The pro-Bolsonaro encampments outside army barracks were cleared, and a new round of protests on January 11 never materialized.

The Supreme Court agreed to prosecutor’s requests on Friday to investigate Bolsonaro for the alleged involvement in the attacks. His lawyer has rebutted the accusations, saying Bolsonaro always “rejected all illegal and criminal acts … and has always been a defender of the constitution and democracy.”

High level officials have aimed their sights on Bolsonaro allies still working in government, including Anderson Torres, who was effectively in charge of security for the Three Powers Square, where the governmental buildings were located.

Brazil’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the arrest of Torres, who was previously Bolsonaro’s justice minister and assumed the role of security secretary of the Federal District in January, and the district’s former military police commander Fabio Vieira.

The order accuses the pair of attempting a coup d’état, terrorist acts, damage to public property, criminal association, and violent abolition of the rule of law. It also argues “the absence of the necessary policing” during the riots happened due to the “omission and connivance of several authorities in the area of security and intelligence.”

Torres, who was fired on Sunday with Vieira, had traveled to Florida on January 7, a day before the riots. It is unclear if he met with Bolsonaro, who was also in Florida, having left Brazil in December, days before the inauguration of Lula.

The former security secretary has strenuously denied any involvement in the riots. “I deeply regret these absurd hypotheses of any kind of collusion on my part,” he tweeted on Sunday, and wrote days later that he would return to Brazil and fight the charges.

He was arrested on his return to Brazil on Saturday, CNN Brasil reports.

On Thursday, the Federal Police announced that during a search of Torres’ home, it found a draft decree proposing to overturn October’s presidential election. Torres has denied being the author.

CNN has reached out to his lawyer for comment.

Investigators are looking for funders and leaders of the riots, an unenviable task due to the protesters lack of formalized leadership, Michele Prado, an expert on the Brazilian far right, told CNN.

“Despite this fluidity of (protest) leaders and horizontality,” there are thousands of people online who continue to share extremist positions, she added.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Henrik Pettersson, Patrick Gallagher, Agne Jurkenite and Gabrielle Smith contributed to this report. Reporting also contributed by journalists Marcia Reverdosa and Camilo Rocha in Sao Paulo.

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