RIO DE JANEIRO – The two men were sitting at a bar on Nov. 21, sipping drinks for relief from the scorching heat of Brazil's Mato Grosso state, when police officers barged in and arrested them for allegedly torching trucks and an ambulance with Molotov cocktails.
One man attempted to flee and ditch his illegal firearm. Inside their pickup truck, officers found jugs of gasoline, knives, a pistol, slingshots and hundreds of stones — as well as 9,999 reais (nearly $1,900) in cash.
A federal judge ordered their preventive detention, noting that their apparent motive for the violence was “dissatisfaction with the result of the last presidential election and pursuit of its undemocratic reversal,” according to court documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
For more than three weeks, supporters of incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro who refuse to accept his narrow defeat in October’s election have blocked roads and camped outside military buildings in Mato Grosso, Brazil's soy-producing powerhouse. They also have protested in other states across the nation, while pleading for intervention from the armed forces or marching orders from their commander in chief.
Since his election loss, Bolsonaro has only addressed the nation twice, to say that the protests are legitimate and encourage them to continue, as long as they don't prevent people from coming and going.
Bolsonaro has not disavowed the recent emergence of violence, either. He has, however, challenged the election results — which the electoral authority's president said appears aimed at stoking protests.
While most demonstrations are peaceful, tactics deployed by hardcore participants have begun concerning authorities. José Antônio Borges, chief state prosecutor in Mato Grosso, compared their actions to that of guerrilla fighters, militia groups and domestic terrorists.
Mato Grosso is one of the nation's hotbeds for unrest. The chief targets, Borges says, are soy trucks from Grupo Maggi, owned by a tycoon who declared support for President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There are also indications that people and companies from the state may be fueling protests elsewhere.
Road blockades and acts of violence have been reported in the states of Rondonia, Para, Parana and Santa Catarina. In the latter, federal highway police said protesters blocking highways have employed “terrorist” methods including homemade bombs, fireworks, nails, stones and barricades made of burnt tires.
Police also noted that roadblocks over the weekend were different from those carried out immediately after the Oct. 30 runoff election, when truckers blocked more than 1,000 roads and highways across the country, with only isolated incidents.
Now, most acts of resistance are taking place at night, carried out by “extremely violent and coordinated hooded men," acting in different regions of the state at the same time, federal highway police said.
“The situation is getting very critical” in Mato Grosso state, chief state prosecutor Borges told the AP. Among other examples, he noted that protesters in Sinop, the state’s second most populous city, this week ordered shops and businesses to close in support of the movement. “Whoever doesn’t shut down suffers reprisals,” he said.
Since the vote, Bolsonaro has dropped out of public view and his daily agenda has been largely vacant, prompting speculation as to whether he is stewing or scheming.
Government transition duties have been led by his chief of staff, while Vice President Hamilton Mourão has stepped in to preside over official ceremonies. In an interview with newspaper O Globo, Mourão chalked up Bolsonaro’s absence to erysipelas, a skin infection on his legs that he said prevents the president from wearing pants.
But even Bolsonaro's social media accounts have gone silent – aside from generic posts about his administration, apparently from his communications team. And the live social media broadcasts that, with rare exception, he conducted every Thursday night during his administration have ceased. The silence marks an abrupt about-face for the bombastic Brazilian leader whose legions of supporters hang on his every word.
Still, demonstrators, who have camped outside military barracks across Brazil for weeks, are certain they have his tacit support.
“We understand perfectly well why he doesn’t want to talk: They (the news media) distort his words,” said a 49-year-old woman who identified herself only as Joelma during a protest outside the monumental regional military command center in Rio de Janeiro. She declined to give her full name, claiming the protest had been infiltrated by informants.
Joelma and others say they are outraged with Bolsonaro’s loss and claim the election was rigged, echoing the incumbent president’s claims — made without evidence — that the electronic voting system is prone to fraud.
Scenes of large barbecues with free food and portable bathrooms at several protests, plus reports of free bus rides bringing demonstrators to the capital, Brasilia, have prompted investigations into the people and companies financing and organizing the gatherings and roadblocks.
The Supreme Court has frozen at least 43 bank accounts for suspicion of involvement, news site G1 reported, saying most are from Mato Grosso. Borges cited the involvement of agribusiness players in the protests, many of whom support Bolsonaro’s push for development of the Amazon rainforest and his authorization of previously banned pesticides. By contrast, President-elect da Silva has pledged to rebuild environmental protections.
Most recently, protesters have been emboldened by the president’s decision to officially contest the election results.
On Tuesday, Bolsonaro and his party filed a request for the electoral authority to annul votes cast on nearly 60% of electronic voting machines, citing a software bug in older models. Independent experts have said the bug, while newly discovered, doesn’t affect the results and the electoral authority's president, Alexandre de Moraes swiftly rejected the “bizarre and illicit” request.
De Moraes, who is also a Supreme Court justice, called it “an attack on the Democratic Rule of Law ... with the purpose of encouraging criminal and anti-democratic movements."
On Nov. 21, Prosecutor-general Augusto Aras summoned federal prosecutors from states where roadblocks and violence have become more intense for a crisis meeting. Aras, who is widely seen as a Bolsonaro stalwart, said he received intelligence reports from local prosecutors and instructed Mato Grosso's governor to request federal backup to clear its blocked highways.
Ultimately that wasn’t necessary, as local law enforcement managed to break up demonstrations and, by Monday night, roads in Mato Grosso and elsewhere were all liberated, according to the federal highway police. It was unclear how long this would last, however, amid Bolsonaro's continued silence, said Guilherme Casarões, a political science professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation university.
“With his silence, he keeps people in the streets,” Casarões said. “This is the great advantage he has today: a very mobilized, and very radical base.”
Associated Press reporter Carla Bridi in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.