Portrait

Enrique Tarrio, the Cuban-American leader of the far-right 'Proud Boys'

Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, stands outside Harry's bar during a protest on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, stands outside Harry's bar during a protest on December 12, 2020 in Washington, DC. AFP - STEPHANIE KEITH

Two days before planned demonstrations against the certification of Joe Biden's election as the next US president, Enrique Tarrio, leader of the far-right Proud Boys, was arrested in Washington, DC. Born in the US to Cuban-American parents, he has been leading the extremist group for more than two years. FRANCE 24 takes a look at this controversial character.

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When on a march, Tarrio always wears the same outfit. Baseball cap on his head, sunglasses on his nose, yellow and black polo shirt and bulletproof vest on his back as he leads his troops, the Proud Boys, an increasingly armed alt-right group.

Since Joe Biden was announced the winner of the 2020 US presidential election, Tarrio and his men have been pounding the pavement to denounce what they contend was a fraudulent vote. The group plans to meet in Washington, D.C. on January 6 to protest the certification of Biden’s victory in Congress.

This time, however, Tarrio won't be there. The 36-year-old was arrested Monday in the US capital for his participation in the burning of a "Black Lives Matter" banner that was taken from a historic black church in DC during a demonstration last month. Tarrio admitted his role in the destruction of the banner in an interview with the Washington Post newspaper but said his actions didn’t constitute a hate crime because he believes the Black Lives Matter movement “has terrorised the citizens of this country".

He is also charged with a felony possession of two high-capacity firearm magazines, which were found at the time of his arrest.

Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, is seen at a "Stop the Steal" rally against the results of the U.S. Presidential election outside the Georgia State Capitol on November 18, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, is seen at a "Stop the Steal" rally against the results of the U.S. Presidential election outside the Georgia State Capitol on November 18, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. AFP - Elijah Nouvelage

From Little Havana to jail time

The Cuban-American, raised in Miami’s Little Havana, already had a significant criminal record. At the age of 20, he was convicted of stealing a motorcycle and sentenced to three years of probation and community service. At 29 he was convicted of selling stolen medical supplies and sentenced to 16 months in jail.

The time behind bars forced Tarrio to face his mistakes, according to the Miami New Times. After that, he created two companies, one installing security systems and another providing GPS systems to businesses.

It was in 2017 that Tarrio began socialising with members of the Proud Boys, which had been founded a year earlier by Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice magazine. Tarrio, who grew up in a conservative Cuban community, was quickly seduced. In August, he was present at the infamous "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville alongside hundreds of white supremacists, nationalists and other neo-Nazis protesting the removal of the statue of secessionist general Robert E Lee. A protestor drove his car into counter-demonstrators, killing one person.      

'A general hate group'

The Proud Boys reject assertions that they are white supremacist, anti-Semitic, racist or fascist. "I'm pretty brown. I am Cuban. There is nothing white supremacist about me," Tarrio told Insider. He sees himself, above all, as a conservative. "I think that conservatism is what will save America," he said. The Proud Boys are just a "group of guys that hang out and drink beer together and just have a good time", he told Heavy. "Obviously, we're a political group, but that’s secondary in nature."

But on social media the picture looks completely different. On his personal accounts, Tarrio denigrates, among others, transgender people and said that the African-American actress Leslie Jones looked like a "monkey". In 2018, his Twitter profile was suspended. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Proud Boys as a general hate group known for anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric.

Just to join the group requires violence. Any man who wants to be a Proud Boy must pass four initiation rites: utter the phrase “I am a Western Chauvinist and I refuse to apologise for creating the modern world, and we call ourselves ‘the Proud Boys’", name five brands of cereals while being beaten up, get a tattoo of the Proud Boys logo, renounce masturbation and participate in fights with extreme left-wing groups. Tarrio accomplished the fourth step by punching someone he believed to be a member of Antifa in the face in June 2018. He then climbed the ladder in the organisation until becoming its leader that November. The New York Times estimates the group has between 1,000 and 3,000 members.

Backing Trump and backed by Trump

Since then, the Proud Boys have made a name for themselves by openly supporting President Donald Trump. On September 29, during a televised debate with Joe Biden, Trump gave an ambiguous response when asked to condemn the group – he called on them to "stand back and stand by". Roger Stone, a former adviser to Donald Trump, also appeared regularly alongside members of the militia.

During the last presidential campaign, as the state director for Latinos for Trump in Florida, Tarrio worked tirelessly to get the businessman re-elected. He told the New York Times that he "personally knocked on 40,000 doors" to win over voters in the state, which Trump won.

Before his arrest, the leader of the Proud Boys had warned that he would continue the fight. He vowed on social media networks that his group would have an "unprecedented" presence in Washington and that they could be dressed in black, like the far-left Antifa activists, to pass "incognito".

Police expressed fears of violence and concern that demonstrators could be armed. The National Guard announced that more than 300 soldiers will be deployed this week in the capital to support local law enforcement agencies. The Secret Service will also be mobilised. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said: "We will not allow anyone to incite violence or to intimidate our citizens."

This article was translated from the original in French.

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