IN-DEPTH | Brasilia rioters: Who are they?

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Supporters of Brazilian former President Jair Bolsonaro invade Planalto Presidential Palace while clashing with security forces in Brasilia on January 8, 2023.
Supporters of Brazilian former President Jair Bolsonaro invade Planalto Presidential Palace while clashing with security forces in Brasilia on January 8, 2023.
SERGIO LIMA / AFP

They are a diverse bunch -- black and white, rich and poor, young and old. But the Bolsonaro-backing rioters who invaded and defaced the symbols of Brazil's democracy are united by one thing: a visceral hatred of "communism."

Since their far-right hero Jair Bolsonaro lost elections in October, they have camped in the capital Brasilia, clamoring for the military to launch a coup to rid the country of his leftist successor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

As their call went unanswered, on Sunday they launched the assault. Hundreds flooded the presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court in a rampage organized days in advance on Telegram and WhatsApp.

READ | IN-DEPTH: Brazil upheaval sparks deja vu? It already happened in US

They sang the national anthem, hurled insults and objects at law enforcers, and left mass destruction in their wake.

But who are they?

A mechanic, a pensioner, an evangelical pastor and the wife of a former state governor -- those are just some of the rioters identified after posting unmasked selfies of their potentially criminal exploits on social media, in images reprinted in the O Globo daily.

Others included a nephew of vanquished far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, a well-known YouTuber, a Big Brother contestant, and a retired general.

Almost all are dressed in the yellow-and-green colors of the Brazilian flag appropriated by Bolsonaro and his backers as a symbol of nationalist fervor.

Why? 

"I took part because I want a free Brazil, free of communism," arrested rioter Augustinho Ribeiro told AFP-TV after his release from custody.

"We live in oppression. We think our country could become communist," said Lucia, another arrested protester who did not want to give her last name.

Bolsonaro did his best on the campaign trail to raise the specter of "communism" under leftist Lula, who had already served two previous presidential terms during which he was credited with lifting 30 million people out of poverty.

Facing criticism over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and deforestation of the Amazon, among others, Bolsonaro sought to deflect attention onto Lula's graft conviction, which has been overturned.

Long before the election, the ultra-conservative Bolsonaro also attempted to cast doubt on Brazil's election bodies, and suggested he would not accept defeat.

READ | ANALYSIS: Brazil - Swift, robust response to the insurrection highlights strength of democracy

When he did lose, millions in a deeply divided society were left with suspicion over the reliability of the election outcome, and fearful of Lula and the left.

"All we want is freedom," an arrested rioter told AFP, unwilling to give her name.

"Nobody went there to kill," she added.

Indeed, unlike the assault on the US Capitol almost exactly two years earlier, the Brasilia rioters were unarmed despite gun ownership having quintupled under Bolsonaro's presidency, and nobody died.

The Brasilia invasions happened on a Sunday, when the government offices were unstaffed, whereas the storming of the Capitol -- with which many comparisons have been drawn -- took place with lawmakers gathered to certify the results of the 2020 election.

The Brasilia rioters' stated goal was to sow chaos to provoke the military to act, and oust Lula.

"Military intervention!" they clamoured.

Chaos there was. But the army never left its barracks, to the frustration of many.

'Fight again'

Just a week before Lula's inauguration on January 1, a Bolsonaro fan planted explosives in the capital, which failed to explode, in an apparent attempt to set the scene for a violent confrontation.

But not all of Bolsonaro's 58 million voters approve of such violence, fed by a hard-core fan base that soaks up conspiracy theories and mass disinformation on social media.

In the wake of Sunday's riots, many suggested -- without evidence -- that left-wing agitators were the real culprits, just as in the United States when some on the right blamed the far-left Antifa group for the storming of the Capitol.

"When the 'bolsonaristas' arrived (at Congress), everything was already broken," one rioter told AFP-TV. "There were infiltrators of the PT (Lula's Workers' Party.) We were betrayed."

Ayrkol Lorena, a 62-year-old pro-Bolsonaro protester, said he had read on social media of "infiltrators in our yellow-and-green movement."

The response of the Lula government was firm, with hundreds of arrests in the wake of the uprising.

But the "bolsonaristas" do not plan to give up -- especially since Bolsonaro, in the United States since December where he received medical treatment -- was perceived to only superficially condemn their actions.

"If they think they're going to intimidate us with this, they're completely wrong," said rioter Ribeiro.

"We will rest and fight again."


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