By Vasco Cotovio, Isa Soares, Daren Bull and Eduardo Duwe | CNN
A police sniper peeked out of a helicopter as it performed a low flyby just a few meters above the Ministries Promenade in Brasilia. He was one of hundreds of officers deployed to secure the enormous grass patch — which sits in front of the Brazilian Senate and Congress and is surrounded by most of the country’s ministries — where protestors were expected to gather last week.
Authorities took no chances ahead of the planned demonstration last Wednesday by supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — in stark contrast to the now-infamous January 8 insurrection, when Brasilia’s security forces were outnumbered and even maybe unwilling to defend several government buildings against the ire of pro-Bolsonaro rioters.
“Today, the same security officers showed that the capital is safe,” Ricardo Capelli, the caretaker head of security for Brasilia told CNN, as he oversaw the large security operation on the ground.
On January 8, hundreds of protesters broke into Brazil’s Congress building, Supreme Court, and presidential palace, breaking windows, damaging priceless artwork and spraying profanity on walls in scenes reminiscent of the January 6th insurrection in the United States.
Security forces have since come under scrutiny not only for failing to stop protesters from advancing on the buildings, but, in some cases, for failing to react. Some pictures and video posted on social media paint the picture of a seemingly passive approach by law enforcement to the increasingly violent protestor presence on Sunday — and top Brazilian government officials have accused the military police and federal police of turning a blind eye.
“There were a lot of colluding agents. There were a lot of people from the Military Police colluding. A lot of people from the Armed Forces here were colluding,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Lula told journalists in Brasilia last week.
“I am convinced that the door of the Planalto Palace was opened for these people to enter because there is no broken door. It means someone facilitated their entry here,” he said.
Federal District Security Chief Ricardo Capelli meanwhile says he believes that, even if some individual officers may have been negligent or cooperated with protesters, security forces as a whole were set up to fail by their then-commanders on January 8.
“What happened on the 8th, and [Wednesday’s] operation clearly demonstrates that, was the absence of leadership,” he say, referring to the fact that Anderson Torres, his predecessor, was travelling when the riots occurred.
“[Torres] changed the core of the leadership, travelled and left the office without command, allowing the unacceptable actions of the 8th to take place,” Capelli argued.
Torres, who denies any wrongdoing, was arrested over the weekend and faces a number of allegations related to the insurrection, including attempted coup and terrorist acts.
On Tuesday, dozens of military personnel were also dismissed from their positions at the Alvorada Palace, the official residency of the Brazilian President. No reason has been given publicly for their firing, but both Lula and first lady Rosangela da Silva have been publicly critical of the military police’s conduct during the insurrection, accusing some of those tasked with guarding not just the Palace but the other attacked buildings of colluding with rioters.
The military police and armed forces have declined CNN’s request for comment and more than a week later have not publicly addressed the security operation on the day of the riots.
Former policeman and law enforcement researcher Cassio Thyone says it’s difficult to say exactly what went wrong, but, from what he saw, some officers may have conducted themselves inappropriately.
“I don’t believe it was incompetence, maybe some negligence. It wasn’t all of them but some police officers ended up thinking there was no risk of an invasion,” Thyone said.
After more than 20 years with the Brasilia Civil police, Thyone is now a lecturer and researcher on public security, heading the law enforcement research NGO Brazilian Public Security Forum.
He believes that political pressure could also have influenced the behavior of some officers.
“We have to understand that as part of the process of the last four years we’ve had a big ideology influence inside our policy, an ideology from the right,” he explained. “I believe that, in some way, it has influenced some of the decisions they’ve made.”
A study carried out by his Brazilian Public Security Forum in 2022, found that police officers were generally “more conservative” group than the average of the Brazilian population. “We’ve seen results that between 50% and 60% of the police force were Bolsonaro sympathizers,” Thyone said.
A previous study by his Brazilian Public Forum in 2021 found that 38% of police officers interacted in pro-Bolsonaro digital environments, and 21% were involved in more radical groups where the possibility of overturning the election was publicly discussed.
Still, support for Bolsonaro does not mean support for political violence.
Thyone’s research shows that law enforcement officers still reject any kind of institutional rupture, he says. “The fact they sympathise with Bolsonaro doesn’t mean they are against democracy,” Thyone explains. “Because for police officers there’s a mission, they’ll have to comply [with the constitution] regardless of their personal convictions.”
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For Capelli, who has been tasked with rooting out any acts of collusion between the January 8 rioters and Brasilia’s security forces, personal politics are irrelevant to his investigation into what happened.
“Police officers have every right to make their political choice, that doesn’t interest me, for me that’s not important,” he says.
“What is important is the respect for the constitution, it’s that them, in exercising their public duty comply with and respect the constitution.”