The End to a Proud Boys Saga That No One Saw Coming

Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio last week received a 22-year prison sentence for seditious conspiracy and other charges related to his role in the Jan. 6 attack. Though Tarrio wasn’t physically present at the Capitol—he had been arrested in Washington for burning a Black church’s Black Lives Matter flag and on a weapons charge, and ordered to stay out of the city—District Judge Timothy Kelly emphasized his outsized impact, marking him and the Proud Boys as emblematic of the onslaught the Capitol Police faced that day. (Tarrio claimed Tuesday that investigators actually tried to use him to implicate Donald Trump.)

Investigative reporter Joshua Ceballos spent time with Tarrio before the trial, publishing a profile of him for the Miami New Times that included a scene in which his family reacted to a five-month prison sentence for the vandalism and weapons charges with grief. With Tarrio now headed away for 22 years, I called Ceballos to ask him what he made of the sentence and its fallout. His profile painted a complicated picture of Tarrio and his leadership of the group, to the chagrin of some readers who thought it humanized him too much, and to still others who thought it unjustly vilified him. Who was the real Tarrio? Will we ever know? Should we care? Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: How did you first come across Enrique Tarrio? What were your first impressions of him?

Joshua Ceballos: I first encountered him while I was working with the Miami New Times, which is the alt-weekly down here in Miami. It had already done a lot of reporting on the Proud Boys and the far right. So, when I came in, I kind of continued that coverage. My editor had Tarrio’s phone number from that previous coverage, and so when I was doing stories related to the Proud Boys, I’d call that number because he was the chairman and the spokesperson at the time. When a viral video showed the city of Miami’s former police Chief Art Acevedo getting into a verbal altercation with a guy who seemed to be a Proud Boy, I called Enrique to ask, “Is this one of your guys?”

My impression of him was, I think, the same as a lot of people had. He has obvious charisma. He’s a fairly even-keeled, calm-sounding guy, which makes him a helpful spokesperson to an organization that has big bearded dudes going out fighting and brawling. It helped to wash their image a little bit whenever he got in front of a camera.

What drove your interest in writing an in-depth profile about him?

Our magazine had previously heavily featured him in a cover story about the Proud Boys in 2018. After the whole “stand back, stand by” thing from Donald Trump, the Proud Boys and Tarrio were ascending, and my editor realized that Tarrio was from our own backyard. My editor asked me, “Why don’t you follow him around?” And I was game for it.

Given the subject matter, as a journalist, did you have ethical concerns? Other journalists I’ve interviewed have struggled with the question of when you should or shouldn’t humanize leaders of violent groups like the Proud Boys. Did that cross your mind at all?

Absolutely. And I still ask myself that question to this day. It came up after the story was published. I faced backlash from both sides of the aisle. The people on the right said I was too mean to Tarrio, and people on the left asked why I would humanize these kinds of people. But I justified it by not being too heavy-handed, like, “Oh, this guy is just a normal dude,” without also being like, “He’s in charge of this organization that has ties to white supremacy, and this is the violence that they’ve caused.” I just wanted to show people what it’s like under the hood of this kind of person.

I imagine Tarrio is wary of the media, considering how the Proud Boys have been reported on historically. Did he agree to the profile right away? How did you build trust with him?

It’s funny. At that press conference after the sentencing, his mom and his lawyer said that he likes to talk and be in front of cameras. It’s true. He definitely has an ego. So, when I approached him about this, he got on board pretty quickly. At the time, he was very open to speaking with media. And when I brought up the prospect of him getting another cover story, he was all about it. In his house, he has the Miami New Times’ first cover story about the Proud Boys framed in his office. He asked me, “Am I going to get another cover?” And I just told him, “I don’t know. Maybe.” So, I think when it came to him being front and center in this story, I don’t think he had a problem with it.

What about Tarrio surprised you and would surprise the rest of us who know him only through the headlines about him?

Let me say this carefully, because I don’t mean to say that he is someone that should be necessarily related to. But what struck me was how much this guy reminds me of my cousin. And I think that was the thrust of my story, that he was once a regular Miami kid who reminded me of people that I grew up with. I went to his house and he’s got an Iron Man statue in his entertainment area and a bookshelf full of Halo novels from the video game. I was like, Oh, God. He reminds me of my older brother and my cousins. Meanwhile, he is the face of this group. I felt like I understood how a person like him could have gotten to the point that he did, but I very much felt the need to balance that against a suspicion that this guy might be lying to me. I thought maybe this guy was just saying these things to appeal to a broader audience, because he seemed obviously media-trained. I held on to a healthy amount of skepticism as I went about interviewing him.

You were there when a past verdict was delivered. The family was upset about a much shorter sentence—around five months—than he just received. What were you thinking when you heard the latest news?

When I saw that 22-year sentence, my immediate thought was, like, Oof, I wonder what his mom is thinking right now. Tarrio has a very close-knit family. He was always talking to his mom, she was always around, and they worked together in the same office. She visited him every week after he was arrested, and spent five months in D.C. during this process. So I imagine it’s been very tough on her. His mom said that he’s being used as a political pawn, that they’re just making an example of him, which, I don’t know that that’s true. But it’s definitely a shocking verdict. He wasn’t there on Jan. 6, so to see him get the largest sentence compared to Stewart Rhodes, who was there on the ground, makes your eyes go wide. People are free to make their own opinions. Some people will say her son deserves this, or that she’s delusional if she thinks that he deserves less. But I think you have to have some amount of human understanding. She’s a mother. That’s her son. And he’s going to go to prison for 22 years.

Can I read for you some of what the judge said to describe Tarrio’s character, to compare to your impression of him based on your time with him? He called Tarrio “the ultimate leader” and “the ultimate person who organized, who was motivated by revolutionary zeal.” And he said, at the end of the three-hour hearing, that he showed no remorse. How do you square that with the Tarrio that you met?

“Motivated by a revolutionary zeal”? I don’t know. In speaking to him—and I’ll caveat that I don’t know how much of what he told me was true—he didn’t really seem like a politically zealous kind of guy. He wasn’t even very good at nailing down what his own political beliefs were. He changed them often, like, “Oh, I don’t know if I consider myself conservative or more libertarian” and things like that. I don’t know if I’d call him a very zealous person from that perspective. And “the ultimate leader”? I think that’s up to the evidence presented. I wouldn’t know. Maybe it was a lie, but he told me, “I think if I would have been there, that wouldn’t have happened.” But then, in court, they were showing messages of him egging these people on and saying, “We did this, keep going.” I asked his mom, during the press conference, how she squares that. And she compared it to a ballgame, where people get too enthusiastic, just like guys in the group chat talking crap. I don’t know if I would compare the insurrection to that.

What do most journalists get wrong when reporting about Tarrio or the Proud Boys?

A lot of the reporting makes it seem like the Proud Boys is one centralized organization and that they all follow the same tenets and have operatives and all these things. I don’t think it’s that organized or that well thought-out. Which isn’t to say that their impact isn’t big sometimes. But I think it’s not as well oiled of a machine as some reporting makes it out to be. Based on my reporting in Miami, there is some connective tissue, and some national leadership that some people argue over, but it’s mainly like a chapter-to-chapter thing. There were people in there that didn’t like Tarrio and didn’t follow the purported rules that Tarrio had for the organization.

In Miami, a lot of people down here could be Enrique Tarrios. Cuban-Americans especially grow up in very conservative households with very anti-leftist rhetoric and talking points being thrown around all the time. I grew up with a lot of guys who probably have the same thoughts as Tarrio. ­But when you’re thrust onto this national stage, when you have the charisma and the know-how he had and get into these political circles and then, by chance, was put into this national spotlight, where suddenly he’s on the front page of everything—that’s what made him into what he is. He just kept building the clout. But a lot of people are like that. Maybe they don’t have super extreme ideas, but if they get in a group or they can lead a group, they can have these outsized impacts.

What do you think could have saved Tarrio? What kind of intervention could keep other Miami kids from going down the same path?

I think it’s more about what brought him there. The Trump movement, especially with the “stand back, stand by” thing, kind of ballooned and thrust everything into the stratosphere. So if that hadn’t happened, maybe we wouldn’t be here today. I think if it hadn’t been for this MAGA wave that gained so much popularity, especially here in South Florida, it might not have gotten to the stage that it did.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.