Enrique Tarrio was wanted by police after he admitted to tearing down and burning a Black Lives Matter flag outside a historically Black church in the nation’s capital during December riots connected to a protest supporting then-President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
On 6 January, 2021, Tarrio watched the insurrection unfold from a hotel in Baltimore.
Before his arrest two days earlier, Tarrio wrote to his lieutenant: “Whatever happens … make it a spectacle.”
Tarrio is now among four members of the self-described “Western chauvinist” gang facing decades in prison after they were found guilty in May of seditious conspiracy and other charges in connection with the mob’s assault. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison, the longest sentence to date in connection with the attack.
In a sentencing memo, prosecutors said the men “organized and directed a force of nearly 200 to attack the heart of our democracy” and “intentionally positioned themselves at the vanguard of political violence in this country.”
“The defendants understood the stakes, and they embraced their role in bringing about a ‘revolution.’ They unleashed a force on the Capitol that was calculated to exert their political will on elected officials by force and to undo the results of a democratic election,” prosecutors wrote. “They failed. They are not heroes; they are criminals.”
During the trial, prosecutors presented hundreds of internal messages revealing the group’s toxic rhetoric and culture of violence depicting a gang “that came together to use force against its enemies” in the weeks leading up to January 6, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors argued that the Proud Boys were not merely obedient followers of the former president’s commands but were preparing for “all-out war” to undermine millions of Americans’ votes and upend a democratic election to preserve his presidency.
Tarrio, as the leader of the gang, along with his four co-defendants, “directed, mobilized and led” a crowd of 200 supporters towards the Capitol on January 6, “leading to dismantling of metal barricades, destruction of property, breaching of the Capitol building, and assaults on law enforcement,” then bragged about their actions on social media and in group chat messages that were later shared with jurors, according to prosecutors.
Defence attorneys have placed the blame on the words and actions of then-President Trump, who directed his supporters to “fight like hell” the morning of the attack and – in a message from a debate stage heard loud and clear by members of the Proud Boys and their allies – “stand by.”
“It was Donald Trump’s words. It was his motivation,” Tarrio’s attorney Nayib Hassan told jurors in closing arguments. “It was not Enrique Tarrio. They want to use Enrique Tarrio as a scapegoat for Donald J Trump and those in power.”
Proud Boys emerged in cities across the US as a violent response to antifascists organizing in the wake of the 2016 election, exploiting white, right-wing male rage and relying on semi-ironic posturing and barroom culture to launder far-right, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT+ views.
Tarrio, who assumed the role of group “chairman” in 2018, previously was a “prolific” cooperator with local and federal law enforcement agencies, according to court records and testimony from a former attorney.
His own lawyer and an FBI investigator said Tarrio helped authorities prosecute more than a dozen people in cases involving drugs, gambling and human smuggling between 2012 and 2014. Tarrio has denied his involvement.
Enrique “Henry” Tarrio, 39, was born in Miami to Cuban immigrant parents.
He was initially reluctant to join the Proud Boys until he was courted by members at a party for far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017; Tarrio was there working security.
Tarrio rose through the ranks of the burgeoning neo-fascist gang, attending events for Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, rallying alongside members at 2017’s so-called Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, Virginia that exploded into lethal violence, and broadening his Florida chapter into a national operation.
“Before me – and they hate it when I say this – they were the Gavin McInnes fan club,” he told the Miami New Times. “We weren’t really political.”
In 2013, he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a healthcare fraud case involving diabetic test strips, then assisted federal prosecutors to identify a dozen other suspects, according to court records. He served one year and four months in prison.
During a televised presidential debate on 29 September, 2020, debate moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly asked then-President Trump whether he would denounce white supremacism. Mr Trump asked for a name to reference. Joe Biden, standing on the opposite side of the stage, suggested the Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Mr Trump said. “But I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
Almost immediately, Proud Boys members and their allies celebrated what they heard as a call to action.
“Trump basically said to go f*** them up!” Tarrio’s future co-defendant Joe Biggs wrote on Parler at the time. “This makes me so happy.”
Accounts also circulated a meme illustrating the president wearing a Fred Perry shirt – a part of the group’s unofficial uniform – and a peaked cap bearing the Proud Boys logo with the text “standing by for your orders general, sir.”
Another image included an incorrect version of the president’s remarks that more acutely resembled a call to arms: “Proud Boys can stand back and stand by, because someone has to take care of antifa and these people.”
“Although I am excited about our mention on the debate stage … I am not taking this as a direct endorsement from the President,” Tarrio wrote on Telegram.
“Him telling the Proud Boys to stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done,” he added.
On Parler, Tarrio said: “Standing by, sir.”
Following Mr Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, Tarrio and hundreds of members of the Proud Boys and other far-right groups marched through Washington DC, where they set fire to a Black Lives Matter banner seized from historic Black church Asbury United Methodist. The group also attacked Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, another historic Black church.
During his arrest after his arrival in Washington on 4 January, 2021, police found Tarrio was carrying two high-capacity magazines compatible with high-powered rifles. Both were empty.
He faced a misdemeanor charge of destruction of property for burning the church’s sign and two subsequent felony charges for possessing a high-capacity feeding device.
Tarrio had previously admitted in comments on Parler and on a Proud Boys-affiliated podcast that he was responsible for burning a church’s sign.
“In the burning of the BLM sign, I was the one that lit it on fire,” he said. “I was the person that went ahead and put the lighter to it and engulfed it in flames, and I am damn proud that I did.”
Later that year, he announced he was stepping down from his leadership role with the Proud Boys, as other members “start getting more involved in local politics, running our guys for office from local seats, whether it’s a simple GOP seat or a city council seat.”
But in the wake of January 6, as the group decentralized, members have harassed drag queen story-telling events at libraries and amplified “groomer” smears aimed at LGBT+ people.
The group has been central to a wave of attacks and threats against drag performers and the people and venues that host them, according to a recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Proud Boys chapters targeted 60 such events, with more than half resulting in physical and verbal clashes, the report found.
In July 2021, as part of a plea agreement dropping the felony charges against him, Tarrio pleaded guilty to destruction of property and to a misdemeanor count of attempted possession of a high-capacity magazine. He was released in January 2022 after serving four months in jail.
Last month, members of the group were ordered to pay $1m over what a Washington DC Superior Court judge called a “highly orchestrated” and “hateful and overtly racist” assault against the church.
Five months later, a federal grand jury indicted Tarrio and four other men – Joe Biggs, Ethan Nordean, Dominic Pezzola and Zachary Rehl – for seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol attack.
US District Judge Timothy Kelly barred prosecutors from discussing Tarrio’s prior arrest during the Proud Boys trial, but jurors were exposed to dozens of messages revealing members’ hateful rhetoric and calls for violence in private messages and across social media platforms and in public statements – and in a video showing them burning the Black Lives Matter banner.
In the weeks leading up to January 6, Tarrio had assembled a “Ministry of Self-Defense” with his co-defendants and Jeremy Bertino, a former Proud Boy who pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and served as a key government witness at trial. Bertino’s testimony implicated Tarrio and the other men in a conspiracy to what he said was “anything that was necessary to save the country” – including breaking into the Capitol to block the certification of an American election.
Days before the attack, Tarrio exchanged messages with another person who shared a plan called “1776 Returns” that included plans to occupy “crucial buildings” with “as many people as possible,” including the House and Senate. That person wrote that “revolution is [sic] important than anything,” to which Tarrio replied: “That’s what every waking moment consists of … I’m not playing games.”
On January 6, Tarrio told followers on social media that day to “do what must be done” and, in a group chat with other Proud Boys members, “do it again.”
“Make no mistake,” he wrote in another message. “We did this.”
This story was initially published on 29 August and has been updated with developments