SÃO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil — Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil defied a Friday deadline to report to prison to begin serving a 12-year corruption sentence, daring authorities to haul him away from a union headquarters thronged by his supporters.
As the 5 p.m. deadline neared, Mr. da Silva’s supporters counted down the last five seconds. Then they began chanting: “There is no surrender!”
Mr. da Silva’s decision set the stage for a heated confrontation between the most loyal defenders of a polarizing, yet enormously popular politician, and law enforcement officials who regard his imprisonment as a defining moment in their yearslong effort to stamp out corruption in Brazil.
Brazilians were riveted by the drama on Friday amid uncertainty about when and how Mr. da Silva, once a lion of Latin America’s left, would be taken into custody.
Some Brazilians relished the imminent arrest of Mr. da Silva, seeing it as a measure of justice in a country where powerful politicians have stolen with impunity for years. But others seethed, saying that the 72-year-old former president, who is the front-runner in the presidential election set to take place in October, was about to become a political prisoner.
Mr. da Silva spent the day holed up at the metalworkers union headquarters in São Bernardo do Campo, a municipality just outside of São Paulo, surrounded by supporters. Though Mr. da Silva did not speak publicly on Friday, a series of posts on his Twitter account conveyed a message of defiance.
“They want to arrest me to silence my voice, but I will speak through you,” one said. Another read: “They want to leave me jailed in a cell so I can’t carry on, but I will move forward through your legs.”
The setting provided a powerfully symbolic backdrop for a pivotal moment of his political career. The headquarters is where Mr. da Silva gained prominence as a union leader in the 1970s by railing against the military dictatorship, and where he and fellow leftist leaders formed a political movement that decades later carried him to the pinnacle of power.
“He is staying positive, he is talking and listening,” said Eduardo Suplicy, a founder of Mr. da Silva’s Workers’ Party who visited with him during the afternoon. “There has been such an outpouring of solidarity from the people. He has received all these men and women crying, but he always managed to say something positive.”
Mr. Suplicy said Mr. da Silva planned to attend a Mass at the union hall on Saturday morning for his wife, who died last year. Yet, representatives of the former president said he would surrender to the federal police if they came to take him into custody.
Federal police officials were deeply reluctant to wade through crowds of supporters to apprehend Mr. da Silva, according to local press reports, because doing so could lead to a violent confrontation.
Allies of the president were negotiating with federal police officials on Friday night, but it was unclear how soon — or even whether — a compromise might be reached.
Mr. da Silva on Thursday afternoon was ordered to surrender to federal police officials in the southern city of Curitiba, where his trial was held, no later than 5 p.m. Friday. He ruled out traveling there, a spokesman, José Chrispiniano, said, in part because his assets had been frozen as part of the criminal investigation, leaving him unable to afford the trip.
Supporters who gathered outside the union building waited hours for Mr. da Silva to deliver one of his trademark fiery speeches. But as night fell, onlookers got only fleeting glimpses of the former leader through the windows.
“It’s hard to watch this happen,” said Jose Cano Herdeia, 30, a black Brazilian who attributed his education at a private university to a racial quota system put in place by Mr. da Silva’s government. “And even then we had to fight our way in the door. We know what it’s like to fight and Lula will live to keep on fighting.”
But for law enforcement officials, the imminent arrest of Mr. da Silva answered their yearslong effort to upend the kickback schemes that have long been at the intersection of business and politics in Brazil.
“Justice exists to protect everyone, and to demand that the law be applied indistinctly to those who are poor and those who are powerful,” said José Robalinho Cavalcanti, the president of Brazil’s National Association of Prosecutors. “That may seem obvious in the democratic world. But for Brazil, it is not.”
Mr. da Silva was convicted last July of corruption and money laundering after a federal judge, Sérgio Moro, determined that he had accepted a seaside apartment as a bribe for contracts issued to the construction company O.A.S.
In January, an appeals court unanimously upheld the conviction and increased his sentence to 12 years. Despite those setbacks to Mr. da Silva, he has campaigned vigorously for a third presidential term, and has carved out a comfortable lead in the polls.
This week, Mr. da Silva’s bid to remain a viable candidate appeared to fizzle as the country’s top court rejected his petition to remain free pending further appeals.
Hours after the ruling was handed down on Thursday morning, Judge Moro signed a warrant ordering Mr. da Silva to surrender to the authorities in Curitiba.
In Curitiba, a crowd of about 50 people chanted against Mr. da Silva as they ignited fireworks and honked horns.
“Lula, you drunk, give me my money back!,” some chanted.
Regina Santos, a 53-year-old resident of Curitiba, watched the demonstration with mixed feelings. She voted for Mr. da Silva in 2002, the first time he was elected.
“Like every Brazilian, I had hope he would be different because he was from the people, like us,” she said. But as allegations of corruption against Mr. da Silva and several allies mounted, her loyalty waned.
“Unfortunately in Brazil, we have a culture of corruption,” she said. “Perhaps watching this, Brazilians will understand corruption doesn’t pay off.”
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