Sérgio Lima /AFPTV/AFP

Images Show the Extent of Brazil’s Capitol Riots

Bolsonaro supporters’ attack on the heart of the Brazilian government was a culmination of months of deepening political polarization.

Sérgio Lima /AFPTV/AFP

Authorities in Brazil are investigating supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro in connection to the January 8 attack on the country’s Congress building and other major political institutions. The violent assault in the capital, Brasília, quickly drew global condemnation and comparisons to the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Experts say the recent events were hardly a surprise.

Yellow-and-green clad supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro storm Brazil’s Congress building.
In the capital, Brasília, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro storm Brazil’s Congress building to protest Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration. Sérgio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

Eight days after the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters marched to Brasília’s Three Powers Plaza, where they stormed and ransacked the Supreme Federal Court, Congress, and presidential offices.

Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, hold a banner that reads in Portuguese " Military Intervention".
Protesters carry a sign calling for a military intervention as thousands of people invade Brazil’s major political institutions. Eraldo Peres/AP Photo

Clad in the bright yellow and green jerseys of Brazil’s national soccer team—which have been co-opted by Bolsonaro’s far-right movement—many of the protesters demanded Lula’s ouster and called for Bolsonaro’s return to power.

Left: Protesters hold Brazil’s national flag up to the window of a government building they have occupied. Right: Security personnel prepare to enter one of the buildings overtaken by protesters. Adriano Machado/Reuters, Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
A supporter of Bolsonaro wearing a gas mask and holding up a Brazilian flag, protests outside Planalto Palace.
People cover their faces as police use tear gas to disperse crowds. Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

During nearly three hours of rioting, protesters occupied buildings, shattered windows, and destroyed equipment and furniture. In some areas, they damaged expensive artwork, vandalized offices, and set small fires.

Supporters of Brazilian former President Jair Bolsonaro destroy a window of the the plenary of the Supreme Court in Brasilia.
Protesters use police barricades to smash windows and gain entry to the Supreme Federal Court. Ton Molina/AFP/Getty Images

There were also reports that protesters urinated and defecated in rooms and hallways. Media organizations say at least a dozen journalists were attacked. In addition, videos shared on social media showed protesters striking a police officer on horseback.

Left: Protesters vandalize a room inside the building that houses the presidential offices. Right: A person inspects the damage that was done to an office during the hourslong attack. Adriano Machado/Reuters, Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
A broken sculpture is seen on the trash-strewn ground after protesters ransack the Supreme Federal Court.
A broken sculpture is seen on the trash-strewn ground after protesters ransacked the Supreme Federal Court. Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

The day’s events were unsurprising, experts say. In the months leading up to the October 2022 presidential vote, observers warned of the possibility of postelection violence similar to the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack if Bolsonaro were to lose.

Left: A forensics expert assesses the damage left behind at the presidential offices. The day after the attack, security forces locked down the area around the three government buildings. Right: A damaged painting of a political figure lies on the floor of the Congress building. Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Police walk past damaged windows at the Planalto palace
Police officers walk by shattered windows at the presidential offices. Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Bolsonaro himself repeatedly sowed doubt over the integrity of Brazil’s electoral process, including by making unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. After his narrow loss, he refused to publicly concede, and many of his supporters continue to denounce what they say was a rigged election.

In the weeks after the election, his supporters blockaded major highways and congregated in makeshift camps in Brasília and other cities, calling for the armed forces to intervene to overturn the results. In December, a group of Bolsonaro backers set fire to vehicles and tried to rush the federal police headquarters in the capital. Two weeks later, police arrested a man for attempting to set off a bomb in the city.

A protester with a helmet is seen wearing a t-shirt with Bolsonaro's effigy
A protester wears a shirt with an image of former President Jair Bolsonaro during the melee. Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

Lula, who was in São Paulo at the time of the attack, called the protesters “vandals, neo-fascists, and fanatics” and vowed to bring them to justice. An estimated 1,500 people have since been detained. Lula blamed Bolsonaro, who is currently residing in Florida, for encouraging the riots. He also accused security personnel and intelligence officials of failing to act.

In the wake of the assault, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered a ninety-day suspension for Brasília Governor Ibaneis Rocha, accusing him and his head of security, Anderson Torres, of abetting the attack. (Rocha later announced on Twitter that he had fired Torres.) Questions about police loyalty have mounted after off-duty military police were caught taking photos with protesters. Authorities have begun issuing arrest warrants for government security officials suspected of organizing or aiding the attack, including Torres. In the meantime, security in the capital and other major cities has been tightened amid concerns that protesters are planning to mobilize again.

Left: Police on horseback clash with protesters. Videos on social media showed at least one officer being attacked during the riots. Right: The day after the attack, Brazil’s military dismantles a makeshift camp protesters set up in front of the army’s headquarters. Sérgio Lima/AFP/Getty Images, Amanda Perobelli/Reuters

To restore order, Lula signed an emergency decree allowing the federal government to temporarily take control of public security in the capital until the end of the month. If extended, that measure could interfere with the swearing in of Brazil’s new Congress, scheduled for February 1.

A general view shows the damage caused following the anti-democratic riots, at the Supreme Court building in Brasilia
Smashed windows and furniture that the protesters threw out of buildings remain as evidence of the riots. Amanda Perobelli/Reuters

Leaders from more than a dozen countries, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela, condemned the attack, with some American lawmakers calling for Bolsonaro’s U.S. visa to be revoked. Bolsonaro took to Twitter to denounce the invasion [tweets in Portuguese] of public buildings and followed up with several posts defending his record in government.

Meanwhile, YouTube and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, announced that they will remove content praising the attack from their respective social media websites, some of which demonstrators used to spread election disinformation and stoke public anger. Researchers are also looking into the role that messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram played in organizing the attack.