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Brazil’s military police initially stood by as Bolsonaro supporters rioted

A few officers of the Polícia Militar do Distrito Federal (PMDF) stand casually behind a metal barricade overlooking Brazil’s National Congress building, video posted to social media at 4:09 p.m. local time on Jan. 8 showed. One films the area. Another checks his phone. A third chats with a group of men, two of whom wear the Brazilian flag draped over their shoulders.

Captured on video, the scene appears quiet, boring even, until the end, when the perspective pans to reveal the plaza awash in a sea of green- and yellow-clad rioters.

Just 600 feet away, as the video of the police standing idle posts to social media, officers from the Polícia Legislativa battle the destructive mob that has taken control of Congress, social media posts and CCTV footage of the insurrection in Brasília obtained by The Washington Post show.

A Post examination of more than 150 videos and images from Jan. 8 — including CCTV and body-camera footage — reveals that rank-and-file members of PMDF, tasked with securing the streets surrounding government buildings, did little to stop the initial assault. The visuals, chronologically synchronized by The Post, while not comprehensive, show few, if any, rank-and-file members supported other security forces in the first hours of their efforts to re-secure the government complex.

Government officials were aware of the planned protest, which was widely promoted across far-right social media channels supporting former president Jair Bolsonaro at least five days earlier. “Patriots from all over Brazil,” the messages said, should come and “bring Brasília to a halt.”

The PMDF, which is generally responsible for the day-to-day policing of the Brazilian capital, initially deployed 365 rank-and-file officers on Jan. 8. Polícia Legislativa, which protects the National Congress, and Policía Judicial, which guards the Supreme Court, both posted fewer than 60 officers. Members of the Army, which oversees the forces that protect the presidential palace, are also seen at various points in available footage. The army, PMDF and Força Nacional de Segurança Pública did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment.

At 2:33 p.m., protesters broke through a blockade of more than two dozen PMDF officers about a mile from Three Powers Plaza, which includes the Supreme Court, National Congress and Planalto Palace, in 13 seconds, social media footage first published by the Brazilian newspaper O Globo shows.

[Washington Post, Satellite image ©2023 Google Earth]

Ten minutes later, the crowd pushed past the last line of security forces along the Esplanada dos Ministérios that included a few military personnel in addition to PMDF officers, gaining direct access to the buildings at the heart of Brazil’s democracy.

Multiple analysts who reviewed footage at The Post’s request questioned the PMDF’s preparation, noting that the initial rank-and-file officers did not appear to be prepared for crowd control, as they were not wearing riot gear and appeared to have erected only a small number of physical barriers. They said the PMDF are often better prepared and implement greater crowd control measures at soccer games.

Fernando Miramontes Forattini, co-founder of a research consortium focused on corruption in the global south, told The Post that PMDF officers monitor and talk with organizers at soccer matches to understand the numbers attending, erect and hold proper barricades, perform body searches, inspect the stadium for security breaches and make emergency contingency plans.

Rioters rushed the ramp that leads to the National Congress building immediately after breaking the police line. Polícia Legislativa officers braced for a fight, spreading out across the balcony. Unlike the PMDF and the handful of military personnel that guarded the perimeter, these officers were outfitted in riot gear and protective shields and armed with crowd control munitions.

At 2:44 p.m., just a minute after breaking the last police line, CCTV footage from inside the building shows the rioters entering.

The Polícia Legislative requested backup twice — once on the day before the riot, and once on the day of — but were refused.

As people poured into Congress, part of the crowd split off, moving toward the Planalto Palace. Two groups of roughly a dozen officers, equipped in riot gear, retreated into the palace around 3:05 p.m. with no additional forces visible in available footage and imagery.

By that point, the mob had overcome units from at least three security forces that appear in videos and photos.

Yanilda González, a Harvard professor who focuses on policing and security in Latin America, told The Post that authorities had plenty of warning of how the day might go. It was “pretty likely that something of this scale was going to happen,” she said. “It is very hard to say that anybody should have been caught off guard or that anybody was justified in being unprepared for this particular escalation.”

González noted that there was a lot of support for Bolsonaro among the rank-and-file members of the military police forces across the country. Different forces, she said, have done more or less to police expressions of political support or political acts.

More than two dozen PMDF officers lingered near where rioters initially burst on to the plaza, video shows. While The Post could not independently verify the precise time it was filmed, the overrun Congress building is visible in the background, indicating that the riot was underway. Although some officers appear to hold aerosol cans, they do not engage the rioters or move toward the imperiled building.

The earliest instance The Post found of additional security forces preparing to quell the riot was at 3:34 p.m., more than 30 minutes after both Congress and the presidential palace were breached. From 3:05 p.m., when officers retreated into the palace until 3:34, few members of any security force were visible in available imagery.

Members of the Força Nacional, which was created to respond to security crises and includes officers and firefighters from across Brazil, appear in a photograph bearing less than lethal munitions and clad in riot gear. Four hundred officers from the Força Nacional were activated to protect the city from Jan. 7 to Jan. 9.

Protesters who support Brazil's former president, Jair Bolsonaro, clash with police officers as they storm the Planalto Palace in Brasília on Jan. 8. [Eraldo Peres | AP]

At the same time, thousands of people wreaked havoc inside Brazil’s most important government buildings. While some fought with small groups of officers, many faced little resistance, footage from CCTV reveals, as they broke antiquities, trashed offices and charged their phones.

Around 20 minutes later, at 3:5o p.m., a photograph verified by The Post shows PMDF officers huddled around a coconut water stand looking unconcerned just over half a mile from the riot. In a video posted to social media around 4:30 p.m. of the same stand, officers appear relaxed as they calmly point people toward the government buildings.

Members of Brasilia’s Polícia Militar (PMDF) stand near a coconut water stand on Jan. 8 as an attack was underway. [Weslley Galzo | Acervo | Estadão Conteúdo]

Over the next hour, hundreds of additional security forces, including more units from the Brazilian army and PMDF force trained in riot control, arrived in full body armor, with horses and heavily armored vehicles.

The increased presence outside, however, did not immediately lead security forces to gain more control overall. CCTV footage from the same time shows vastly outnumbered officers from the Polícia Legislativa in a losing battle with rioters inside the Congress building.

At 5:55 p.m., more than three hours after rioters stormed Congress, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared a federal intervention, sending 2,913 additional PMDF officers to Three Powers Plaza, 10 times the number that were initially on duty.

But by then, the damage was done.


(c) 2023, The Washington Post


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