It was an unfair fight in front of the Brazilian Congress. On one side of a metal barrier stood a few dozen police officers, some armed with pepper spray, others with clubs. On the other side was a fast-growing mob of more than 1,000 angry protesters, mistakenly convinced that the presidential election had been stolen and determined to do something about it.
At 2:42 p.m. Sunday, protesters at one end of the street tore down the metal barrier almost simultaneously, while protesters at the other end pushed straight through a plastic roadblock, according to video released by The New York Times. A few police officers sprayed chemical agents, but within seconds the crowd poured through.
The moment marked the beginning of an insurgency that searched Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and President’s offices, leaving the country’s democracy facing its worst threat in decades. The previously unreleased video of the moment reveals the woefully inadequate security at some of the country’s key institutions, which, despite numerous warning signs, is now the focus of the broader probe into how the chaos happened.
Federal authorities have placed much of the blame on the few men who run the federal district, which includes Brazil’s capital, Brasília. They accuse the governor and district security chief of either negligence or, worse, complicity, and have already taken action against them.
In the hours after the riots, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes suspended Ibaneis Rocha, the district governor, from his post for at least 90 days. Mr. Moraes then approved a federal police arrest warrant for the district’s security chief, Anderson Torres, as well as its police chief, Fabio Augusto Vieira. In votes on Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld both injunctions.
Mr Moraes, a controversial figure who has been criticized for exceeding his authority, said evidence showed the men knew the protesters were planning violence but did little to stop them.
Neither he nor other federal agencies have disclosed this specific evidence. Instead, he cited the insufficient number of security forces and the fact that about 100 buses carrying protesters were allowed into Brasília with little surveillance.
What is clear is that the federal government has largely ceded the responsibility of protecting the capital to the district in the face of protests that were likely to turn violent in the days before, according to a number of social media posts. The federal government pays the district about $2 billion a year to provide security, and the district had successfully protected the capital during several major, tense political events in recent months.
A four-page security plan obtained by The Times shows that during Sunday’s planned protests, much of the responsibility for protecting federal government buildings lay with county police.
Understand the unrest in Brazil’s capital
Thousands of rioters supporting Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former President of Brazil, stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and the President’s offices on January 8.
Anatomy of a mass attack: After Mr Bolsonaro lost the presidential election in October, many believed his supporters’ threats of violence would recede. Here’s what went wrong. The investigation: Authorities face several important questions as they piece together how rioters briefly occupied Brazilian government seats. Digital Playbook: Misinformation researchers examine how the internet was used before the riots in Brazil. Many draw a comparison to the January 6 attack. World leaders respond: Governments in Latin America and beyond have promptly condemned the unrest. President Biden called the attack “outrageous”.
The document, signed Friday afternoon and sent to more than a dozen senior security officials in Brasília, ordered district police to keep and “keep out” protesters from Three Powers Plaza, which includes Congress, the Supreme Court and the President’s offices Reinforcement of staff” during the protests.
But that plan didn’t please Flávio Dino, Brazil’s justice minister, when he heard about it in a phone call with Mr Rocha, the district governor, on Saturday morning, according to an official in Mr Dino’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because officials haven’t yet had agreed to release the details of the call.
Mr. Dino didn’t want protesters on the National Esplanade, Brazil’s version of the National Mall in Washington, a long strip of grass that leads directly to Brazil’s most important government buildings. In response, Mr. Rocha agreed to amend the plan accordingly and make the boardwalk closed, according to the officer in Mr. Dino’s office.
Later that evening, the official said, Mr Dino was surprised to see a news article which said Mr Rocha would continue the protest on the Esplanade “in peace and safety”.
The protests went ahead, but there was a lack of calm and security.
On Sunday, thousands of supporters of ousted far-right President Jair Bolsonaro marched onto the Esplanade, dressed in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag and holding signs calling for a military coup and alluding to electoral fraud conspiracy theories long promoted by Mr Bolsonaro.
The district police were there, but not in full force. Authorities did not give the exact number of police officers present on Sunday, but according to videos and eyewitness reports, there were far fewer police officers than at other recent demonstrations in the capital.
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In contrast, a week earlier, several hundred thousand people were in the same place for the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. While these crowds were there to celebrate rather than wreak havoc, the county deployed all of its more than 10,000 police officers, far more than were on the scene Sunday.
Why there were so few police officers is now a central question for the investigators. The security plan did not list a number of officers, instead only suggesting that the police should have enough staff to handle the protests.
Federal authorities have pointed the finger at Mr. Torres and Mr. Vieira, the district’s security and police chief, whose arrests have been ordered.
Mr Torres in particular has come under scrutiny. He was Mr Bolsonaro’s former justice minister and took up his new post in the district on January 2. He quickly replaced much of the district’s security staff, despite his recent electoral track record, and then went on vacation to Florida, where Bolsonaro has also been staying for the past few weeks.
On the day of the protests, Mr Torres, who was said to be in charge of security in the capital, was thousands of miles away.
Mr Torres said Tuesday he would return to Brazil to defend himself. “I have always guided my actions by ethics and legality. I believe in the Brazilian judicial system and in the strength of the institutions. I’m sure the truth will prevail.” he said on Twitter.
Mr. Rocha, the district governor, has also now started pointing the finger at his deputies for the safety deficiencies.
Alberto Toron, Mr Rocha’s lawyer, said in an interview on Wednesday that the security plans were reasonable but the security forces had not implemented them, even suggesting they did so on purpose.
“For example, we’ve seen videos of police fraternizing with demonstrators,” he said. “There is a hidden hand here that has not only demobilized the police and army not to act, but it seems there was an orchestration for something bigger.”
“The governor was fooled,” he added. “He suffered a sabotage trial.”
Multiple videos appear to show police indifference to the protests. In one, a man asks a group of chatting police officers if he can walk all the way to the end of the Esplanade and take a dip in the reflecting pool in front of Congress. “Today is everything open?” he asks. The police seem to respond approvingly and wave him in the direction of Congress.
Another video shows that after protesters climbed onto the roof of Congress and broke into the building, about 10 relaxed police officers watched the scene, chatting with protesters, texting and filming the scene themselves.
It wasn’t until the protesters broke into government buildings that the military and federal police arrived to take back control.
Federal security officials responsible for protecting the president’s offices had not expected violence during the protests and only asked the army for reinforcements after rioters broke into the building, according to an army general, who spoke anonymously to discuss a sealed investigation .
Federal police said late Wednesday that they had arrested 1,159 people, almost all on suspicion of taking part in the riots. Authorities have said in recent days that they are now turning their attention to the political and business elites who have helped organize, fund and support the unrest.
The actions of security officials and police officers are expected to continue to be the focus of investigators in the coming months. Brazil’s Senate plans to launch a congressional investigation next month. On Wednesday, 60 US and Brazilian congressmen released a joint statement condemning extremism in both countries that has led to attacks on their capitals.
Lis Moriconi and Leonardo Coelho contributed to the coverage.