FEW places illustrate the current role of the Brazilian army better than Tabatinga, a city of 62,000 about the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not budged since the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there inside the 1700s. But Júlio Nagy, the local commander, has his sights trained on unconventional threats. In February and March his troops intercepted 3.7 tonnes of cannabis. Last year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. Within a small army-run zoo-the place to find toucans, a jaguar and even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The past time a large Brazilian city was attacked is in 1711, each time a French corsair briefly captured Rio de Janeiro. The country’s official defence review states that “at present, Brazil has no enemies”. Lacking bellicose neighbours, armed insurgencies or much appetite to project power abroad, the defence minister, Raul Jungmann, recognises the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists state that a dearth of military adversaries is not going to justify skimping on defence. Criminal gangs operating in border areas can overwhelm civilian police, and later on Brazil hopes to discourage foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining control of sprawling, varied terrain is just not cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. Along with the army’s own top brass claim that its current form-heavy on low-skilled personnel, light on equipment, and increasingly diverted towards routine policing-is ill-designed for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned throughout the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; during their 1st year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again right after the junta fell in 1985, because the new leaders sought to forge a modern day army under civilian rule. Since 1989 defence spending has fallen from 2.5% of GDP to 1.3%, roughly the regional average. Nonetheless, the army has retained enough influence to face up to nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, the us government has already established to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, in which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. But its peacekeeping contribution ranks just in front of neighbouring Uruguay’s, whose population is smaller compared to nine different Brazilian cities. For the bulk of its forces, Brazil has instead adopted what Alfredo Valladão of Sciences Po, a university in Paris, calls a “constabulary mentality”-plugging the gaps left by domestic security bodies.
Most of these operations fall inside the army’s mission. Federal law grants it policing powers within 150km (93 miles) of Brazil’s land border. International gangs have always been attracted to the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is said to have owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is additionally in charge of “law-and-order operations”. Troops can be a common sight during events like elections or the 2016 Olympics.
However, the army’s remit has expanded to mundane police work. Decades of overspending as well as a long recession have drained the coffers of the majority of Brazilian states. Although just 20% in their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still form a growing share from the army’s workload. In the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the number in the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed from this trend. Unlike politicians and law enforcement officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Despite the shadow from the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often put the army on the top.
Soldiers are trying to adjust to their new role. In a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they are exposed to tear-gas and stun grenades, hence they understand what such weapons feel like before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the conclusion in the army’s 15-month mission to evict gangs. Once they left, the police resumed their trigger-happy ways. Soon the gangsters were back, too.
Nonetheless, blurring the lines between national defence and law enforcement is perilous. Soldiers make costly cops: a day’s deployment of a few thousand could cost 1m reais ($300,000) along with their normal wages. More significant, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy for the democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, not to maintain order daily. And transforming a last-resort show of force in a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires to a very different role. A draft in the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the phrase appears merely one-tenth as much since it does in the similar British analysis from 2015-but long on desirable “capabilities”. Principally, it posits, Brazil must protect its natural riches. That risk might sound remote. However if pessimistic forecasts of climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army on this priority is actually a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will need to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called to get a permanent national guard, beginning from 7,000 men, to alleviate the load about the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this concept.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear really are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders from the vast rainforest or perhaps the “Blue Amazon”, as the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will require a flexible type of rapid-reaction force, capable of intervene anywhere at a moment’s notice.
Which requires modern equipment and small groups of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work on contracts that limit those to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters of your defence budget goes toward payroll and pensions, leaving simply a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the usa, the ratio is the reverse.
Ahead of the recession took root, Brazil was moving towards these ends. In 2015 it consented to buy 36 Swedish Gripen fighter jets for $4.7bn. But shelling out for military equipment has fallen by two-thirds since 2012, leaving a roster of half-baked projects. An endeavor with Ukraine to create a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. An area-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% of the border. A 32bn-real nuclear-powered submarine is nowhere near completion. As well as the country’s only aircraft carrier, never battle-ready, was mothballed in February.
In an ages of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. As the air force only provides one supply flight a month to some border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has got to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais an hour. And in January the army was called in to quell prison riots within the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again in a short time.