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This is how Bolsonaro concocted a coup in Brazil

The former far-right president, several generals and around 20 other men are accused of spending months organizing a plot to annul the results of the 2022 elections and block Lula from taking office

Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.Tiago Coelho (Bloomberg)
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

The judge’s indictment against Jair Messias Bolsonaro — the retired Army captain who governed Brazil from 2019 until 2022 — is devastating. The 135-page document is based on the confession of a witness with privileged access to the former president. It includes screenshots of compromising WhatsApp conversations between the suspects, including the former Minister of Defense.

No country uses the encrypted messaging app as intensely as Brazil. Hence, it’s not surprising that WhatsApp was one of the means of communication used to cook up an attempted coup d’état. The Supreme Court and the Federal Police accuse former president Bolsonaro, four generals, an admiral and around 20 civilians of concocting the plot.

The police’s case leans heavily on the confession (and mobile phone) of the man who probably spent the most time with Bolsonaro while he was president: his personal secretary, 44-year-old Lieutenant Mauro Cid. The military appears as a central intersection for the exchange of information between the suspects in the coup plot. After four months in prison for falsifying his vaccination card, Lieutenant Cid finally decided to speak out. He has offered valuable information, which the police are using to accuse the former president and the rest of the suspects.

This is the reconstruction of how the foiled assault against the capital of Brasília took place on January 8, 2023, as well as an examination of what has occurred since then.

Teniente coronel Mauro Cid
Lieutenant Mauro Cid, Bolsonaro's private secretary and the police's main source in the accusations levied against the former president. In this photo, he attends a parliamentary commission, on July 11, 2023.Eraldo Peres (AP)

Coup dynamics from the top of the government

July 5, 2022. With three months left until the first round of the elections, a duel between two titans is underway. Bolsonaro is seeking re-election, while former center-left president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who held office from 2003 until 2011 — aspires to complete his political resurrection with a third term.

Bolsonaro holds an official meeting at the Planalto Palace with ministers and senior officials. The Federal Police see this as evidence of “a coup dynamic from the top of the government.”

This past Friday, a judge declassified the video, which immediately was circulated by the press. On the tape, the president demands that his ministers publicly question the security of the electronic ballot boxes, suggesting that there’s a conspiracy to seize power from him. “[They’re] setting everything up for Lula to win in the first round,” Bolsonaro snarls. “It’s a fraud. I’m going to show you how and why.”

At least one of those present expresses concern. “Is the meeting being recorded, president?” the comptroller general asks. Bolsonaro tells the minister that only his own speech will be recorded, but it’s evident that the rest of those present were also recorded. The video in question hit the TV stations on Friday, February 9. It was found by the police on a computer that Bolsonaro’s secretary kept at home.

The fiery speeches are seasoned with expletives (Bolsonaro uses five in 35 seconds), soccer references and warlike language. “I’m the line of contact with the enemy,” says Defense Minister General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira, referring to his interactions with the Superior Electoral Court to ensure that the polls are secure. One of the minister generals — Augusto Heleno, head of the Institutional Security Bureau — warns: “If we have to [turn the tables], it has to be before the elections. There’s no VAR (video assistant referee) here like in soccer.”

Bolsonaro — always dramatic — proclaims: “I have no doubts about what they’re up to. I don’t have much proof… I’m going to be dragged out of here (the presidential palace) and jailed for undemocratic acts.”

The meeting that disqualified Bolsonaro

July 18, 2022. In his campaign against electronic ballot boxes, the president receives a group of foreign ambassadors. He conveys his doubts about the voting system to them, without presenting evidence. The diplomats in attendance are astonished. Due to this incident, Bolsonaro has been disqualified from running for elections until the year 2030.

Employees of the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) seal the electronic ballot boxes in September 2022, one month before the presidential elections.
Employees of the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) seal the electronic ballot boxes in September 2022, one month before the presidential elections.Eraldo Peres (AP)

Runoff elections

October 30, 2022. Lula wins the closest elections in Brazilian history. The leftist gets 50.9% compared to 49.1% for the far-right candidate. The next day, tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters claim fraud in front of barracks across Brazil. They camp outside of military installations, demanding that the Army intervene. The vigils remain until the day after the coup attempt (January 9, 2023), when they are forcibly dismantled.

Draft of a coup decree

November 19, 2022. Three of the now-accused legal experts meet at the presidential palace with Bolsonaro. One is the president’s special adviser on international affairs; another is a Catholic priest. They bring him a draft of a coup decree that contemplates annulling the elections and arresting two Supreme Court judges, as well as the president of the Senate. Bolsonaro reviews the text and requests some modifications. Days later, he receives a different version that includes the convocation of new elections and the arrest of Alexandre de Moraes, the Supreme Court judge who is now leading the investigation into the failed riot.

Bolsonaro proposes a coup against the leadership of the Armed Forces

December 7, 2022. Bolsonaro summons the leadership of the Armed Forces — General Marco Antonio Freire Gomes (Army), Commander Carlos Baptista (Air Force), Admiral Ailton Garnier (Navy) and the Minister of Defense — to present a decree intended to break with the Constitution. The Navy chief embraces the idea, but his counterparts are hesitant.

The aforementioned admiral is now accused of plotting a coup. Garnier wrote to some friends this past Thursday, February 8, to tell them that the police woke him up by knocking on the door at 6:15 in the morning. “Accompanied only by the Holy Spirit (because my wife is traveling), they took my phone and papers… I ask everyone to pray for Brazil and for me.”

Pressuring the head of the Army

December 9, 2022. Bolsonaro’s private secretary sends a WhatsApp voice message to the head of the Army. It’s a new attempt to convince him to participate in the coup. Cid tells him that “the president has received [a lot of pressure] to make a tougher decision… but how [is he going to manage] without the Armed Forces?” He then reveals that the president has scaled down the coup decree.

That same day, General Theophilo de Oliveira — who was commander of the Army’s ground forces — meets with Bolsonaro and, according to the indictment, agrees to join the riot, so long as the president signs a decree endorsing it. The Federal Police suspect that he would have led the troops in a coup attempt, while members of the Special Forces would have been in charge of arresting Judge Moraes.

Campaign against the head of the Army

December 15, 2022. There are 16 days left until Bolsonaro’s mandate ends. Walter Braga Netto — a reserve general and a former minister who lost the elections as Bolsonaro’s running mate — is losing it because the head of the Army refuses to join the coup plot. He takes matters into his own hands, exchanging messages on WhatsApp with a shady soldier, expelled from the Army for disciplinary issues. “Friend, unfortunately I have to tell you that [the person who is to blame for] what’s happening and what’s going to happen lies with General Freire Gomes. There’s no room for indecision [in combat],” Braga Netto writes. His interlocutor answers: “We’re going to offer his head to the lions.”

Immediately afterwards, the Bolsonaro digital militias are activated, in a smear campaign against the head of the Army. They also rail against the head of the Air Force, a “traitor to the country,”  in the words of the former vice-presidential candidate, who also orders the shady soldier to deploy a campaign of praise in support of the admiral who agreed to participate in the coup.

That same day, Bolsonaro’s secretary exchanges WhatsApp messages with a Special Forces colonel, asking about the whereabouts of “the teacher.” His interlocutor responds: “[He’ll be returning] to Brasília for the inauguration of the thief (in reference to Lula).” Investigators have concluded that “the teacher” is, in fact, Judge Moraes. They followed his every step for weeks.

Lula takes office

January 1, 2023. Lula assumes power in a ceremony in Brasília, in which his predecessor — who has traveled to Florida to avoid draping him with the presidential sash — doesn’t participate. The massive event takes place with absolute normality. There’s a feeling that the danger of constitutional breakdown has passed. Lula is back as the head of state and Bolsonaro is depressed in the U.S. But a week later, the mirage bursts.

Coup attempt

January 8, 2023. Sunday. Brazil is on New Year’s holidays and Brasília is deserted. Thousands of Bolsonaro supporters — who were camped out in front of the Army Headquarters, designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer — descend on the three branches of the federal government, in an assault on the heart of the country’s democracy.

Bolsonaro’s supporters assault the National Congress in Brasília, on January 8, 2023.
Bolsonaro’s supporters assault the National Congress in Brasília, on January 8, 2023. STRINGER (REUTERS)

The police knock on Bolsonaro’s door

February 8, 2024. Former president Bolsonaro and 28 other people are formally accused of plotting a coup attempt. Four of them — advisors to the previous government — are detained in operation Tempus Veritatis (“the hour of truth”). The rest are subject to various precautionary measures. Bolsonaro — who is in his summer chalet — has his passport seized and is prohibited from traveling abroad.

Valdemar Costa Neto — president of the Liberal Party, the political vehicle that Boslonaro used for his re-election race — spends two nights in the police station, but for reasons unrelated to treason. While raiding his house, the police find a legal weapon registered in someone else’s name (the former legislator claims that a relative forgot it) and a gold nugget that’s of illicit origin.

Bolsonaro continues to claim that he is innocent and that he is the subject of political persecution.

Military clubs and fake news

February 9, 2024. The atmosphere is heated in the Bolsonaro universe. The military clubs belonging to the Army, Navy and Air Force publish a joint statement — entitled Defense of the Homeland, Against the Tyranny of the Judiciary — warning of a supposedly false news item whose authorship is attributed to them.

The “fake news” in question is a call spread by a pro-Bolsonaro colonel who worked in the Ministry of the Environment in the right-wing administration. He has almost 38,000 followers on X and another 68,000 on Instagram. With this infighting, it’s the moment of truth for Bolsonaro, the extremist generals, and for Brazil.

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