BRASÍLIA — Their march in Brazil’s capital was “peaceful,” they said. The damage to the country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential office building was caused by leftists who “infiltrated” their movement. Their own detention in a “concentration camp” was “psychological terrorism.”
“The media treats them as terrorists,” said the Rev. Geraldo Gama, a Catholic priest here. “They’re not. They’re heroes.”
Fueled by conspiracy theories, disinformation and anger at the new leftist government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters boarded buses for the capital last week on a crusade to capture the country’s attention. Following WhatsApp calls for “patriots,” they planned to take a stand against “electoral fraud,” “communism” and “dictatorship.”
On Tuesday, many had been released but remained stuck in the capital. At least 250 took refuge in the Church of Jesus the Good Shepherd, trying To find a way home.
The men and women, most of them retired, chatted in the pews or napped on mattresses on the ground. Church staff and volunteers fed them chicken and rice, helped organize buses, and led them in prayer.
Bolsonaro, who worked for years to sow mistrust in Brazil’s electoral system with unfounded claims of corruption and fraud, lost to Lula in October. He did not concede, and as recently as last month called the result unfair. Lula was sworn in on Jan. 1.
But his supporters’ efforts Sunday, condemned by leaders across the hemisphere, continued to receive support from many in Brazil and abroad.
Eloisa Pecegueiro, a 51-year-old business owner from São Paulo, said she had received donations from people in several US states to help those who were detained or stuck in Brasília after the riot. Some of the money, she said, came from evangelical churches in the United States. She said she was using it to organize buses.
She spoke to the group in the church through a microphone, reminding them to sign up for seats.
“They’re so traumatized,” she told a woman next to her.
Pecegueiro traveled to Brasília to take part in the protest Sunday, but said she stayed away from the federal buildings because she was with her 14-year-old son. When she learned of the group staying at the church, she tapped connections in Brazil and the United States for help.
Gama, the 48-year-old priest, visited some of the people in federal police custody after hearing that hundreds were being detained with minimal food.
“When I found out these people were suffering, it was my duty,” he said.
He asked church staff and volunteers to prepare food and places they could sleep, and by Monday night, more than 250 people had settled into his church in a low-income neighborhood of the capital.
He had prayed for them in mass on Sunday before the protest. Paris Manyhioners supported their movement.
“These patriots were protesting, in a peaceful way, their indignation because of the lack of transparency around the elections,” he said. He didn’t support the violence on Sunday, but blamed it on outside agitators.
Nice Silva, a 58-year-old retired public servant from the São Paulo area, said she took a bus to Brasília to be part of a movement to decry what she saw as fraudulent elections.
“We want the source code,” she said, echoing a rallying cry for many of Bolsonaro’s supporters who questioned the reliability of Brazil’s electronic voting system. “No one was hearing us. The TV doesn’t show us anything.
She had heard from some people that they were planning on entering the presidential palace, she said, but thought they would do so peacefully to demand answers to their questions about electoral fraud.
Silva said the Brasília mob was not inspired by the rioters who attacked the US Capitol two years earlier.
“The violence that happened there didn’t work,” she said. “Ours was going to be peaceful”
But as she walked up the ramp to the presidential palace on Sunday, she watched the scene spiral. She blamed the police for not stopping the vandals. She said police were searching bags but not stopping people from entering.
Shortly before the mob stormed the government buildings, Lourenço Oliveira said he began to feel that something bad was going to happen. He decided to stay behind at the camp Bolsonaro supporters had set up outside an army headquarters in Brasília. Due to a medical condition, the 70-year-old said, he didn’t feel safe joining the march, so he watched the tents instead.
Word was spreading that some people wanted “more aggressive action,” he said. They were hoping to provoke a Guarantee of Law and Order, which would allow the military to take control.
When that didn’t happen, the Bolsonaro supporters decided to take a different approach.
On Monday, Oliveira said, authorities drove him and several others from the camp to the federal police station. He was released without charges, he said.
Authorities said Tuesday they had released hundreds of detainees for “humanitarian” reasons. Among them were elderly people, people with medical conditions and mothers with children.
The federal police said Tuesday all detainees are receiving regular food, hydration and medical attention when necessary. They denied rumors that a woman had died in custody.
One man staying in the Brasília church carried a document that accused him of, among other things, acts of terrorism.
A friend said they weren’t in Brasília yet when the horde stormed the buildings. Their bus, traveling from the southern town of Santa Maria, was late, said Luis Carlos, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution. Otherwise, he said, they would have likely been there.
But he’s convinced there were nefarious actors in the group. He argued that it was suspiciously easy to access the buildings.
“We fell into a trap,” he said.
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