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BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL: Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro clash with security forces as they break into Planalto Palace and raid the Supreme Court in Brasília, Brazil, 8 January 2023. (Photo by Joedson Alves/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Authorities Arrest Hundreds, Launch Investigation After Mob Storms Government Buildings in Brasília

Authorities arrested hundreds of rioters and vowed to hold them accountable after a mob stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace in Brasília on Sunday, inflicting major damage to all the facilities before being removed.

The mob forced its way past security barriers and guards into government houses of power in an attempt to restore former president, Jair Bolsonaro, to power and oust recently inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The rioters falsely claim that Bolsonaro won re-election and that the presidency was stolen from him—rhetoric that Bolsonaro himself has promoted, despite calling the invasion of the capital buildings “crossing the line.”

The rioters invaded and ransacked the presidential palace—which is a UNESCO World Heritage site—and Supreme Court. 

“Congressional offices were closed as the mob moved up the ramp of the Congress building and climbed on the roof and broke windows,” according to NPR. “Some of the crowd, many draped in the Brazilian national flag or its colors, looked to be recording the invasion on their phones.” 

After the buildings were cleared and secured on Sunday evening, President Lula toured the presidential palace and Supreme Court to review the damage.

“The terrorists who promote the destruction of public spaces in Brasília are being identified and punished,” he tweeted after the review. “Tomorrow we will resume work at the Presidential Place. Democracy forever. Goodnight.”

On Monday, Brazilian police began dismantling a tent city outside the country’s army headquarters where pro-Bolsonaro supporters have been camped out since he lost the election in October 2022.  Petrobas, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, has also stepped up its security at refineries as a precautionary measure following Sunday’s assault, and state and city police have been deployed to reinforce security at Rio de Janeiro’s main refinery, Reduc. 

Lawmakers have also called for social media sites to remove content that promotes or backs the rioters’ efforts. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and YouTube have said they will comply with the request.

“In advance of the election, we designated Brazil as a temporary high-risk location and have been removing content calling for people to take up arms or forcibly invade Congress, the Presidential palace, and other federal buildings,” a Meta spokesperson told Reuters. “We are also designating this as a violating event, which means we will remove content that supports or praises these actions. We are actively following the situation and will continue removing content that violates our policies.”

Brazilian Justice Minister Flávio Dino called the incidents “terrorism” and “coup-mongering,” and has initiated an investigation to identify individuals who helped the mob travel to the capital, the Associated Press reported.

“So far, more than 1,200 people have been detained, the justice ministry’s press office said Monday,” according to the AP. “But police were noticeably slow to react—even after the arrival of more than 100 buses—leading many to ponder whether authorities had either simply ignored numerous warnings, underestimated the protesters’ strength, or been somehow complicit. Public prosecutors in the capital said local security forces had at very least been negligent. A supreme court justice temporarily suspended the regional governor. Another justice blamed authorities for not swiftly cracking down on budding neofascism in Brazil.”

The regional governor suspension affects Ibaneis Rocha, who oversees the district that includes Brasília; Rocha will be suspended from his office for 90 days during a review of security failings that allowed the rioters to assemble and gain entry to the government buildings, The New York Times reported. 

Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes said Rocha’s suspension was necessary because he failed to prepare appropriate security plans ahead of Sunday and that the riots “could only have occurred with the consent, and even active participation, of the competent authorities for public security and intelligence.” 

Pro-Bolsonaro protestors have demanded a coup and disrupted Brazil’s interstate travel and commerce for weeks in the lead up to Sunday’s assault. After storming the capital buildings, protest groups continued to hold demonstrations throughout the night—including blockades on BR 163, a highway that runs through the major grain producing state of Mato Grosso, Reuters reported. 

“The occupation of the government buildings had been planned for at least two weeks by Bolsonaro’s supporters in groups on messaging platforms such as Telegram and Twitter, yet there was no move by security forces to prevent the attack, called by one group ‘the seizure of power by the people,’” according to Reuters.

The rhetoric and social media planning efforts were similar to that used by U.S. Capitol rioters on 6 January 2021 to attempt to restore former U.S. President Donald Trump to power. Bolsonaro has also been residing in the United States since before his term as president ended. 

U.S. President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a joint statement Monday to condemn the attacks on Brazil’s government and the peaceful transfer of power, The Washington Post reported.

“We stand with Brazil as it safeguards its democratic institutions,” they wrote. “Our governments support the free will of the people of Brazil. We look forward to working with President Lula on delivering for our countries, the Western Hemisphere, and beyond.”