FEW places illustrate the modern role of the Brazilian army a lot better than Tabatinga, a city of 62,000 in 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 in the 1700s. But Júlio Nagy, a neighborhood commander, has his sights trained on unconventional threats. In February and March his troops intercepted 3.7 tonnes of cannabis. Just last year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. In a small army-run zoo-home to toucans, a jaguar or even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The final time a huge Brazilian city was attacked was in 1711, whenever 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 that the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists say 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 in the future Brazil hopes to deter foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining control over sprawling, varied terrain will not be cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. Along with the army’s own top brass point out that its current form-heavy on low-skilled personnel, light on equipment, and increasingly diverted towards routine policing-is ill-suited for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned in the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; in their 1st year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again after the junta fell in 1985, as being 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 government has experienced to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, to which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. However its peacekeeping contribution ranks just in front of neighbouring Uruguay’s, whose population is smaller than that of nine different Brazilian cities. For the majority 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.
A number of these operations fall throughout the army’s mission. Federal law grants it policing powers within 150km (93 miles) of Brazil’s land border. International gangs have long been interested in the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is said to possess owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is likewise responsible for “law-and-order operations”. Troops really are a common sight during events like elections or maybe 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 many Brazilian states. Although just 20% of their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still form an increasing share from the army’s workload. During 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 police officers, servicemen are noticed as honest, competent and kind. Inspite of the shadow of the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often placed the army at the very top.
Soldiers are attempting to adjust to their new role. With a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, these are subjected to tear-gas and stun grenades, so they really know what such weapons feel as if before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the final in the army’s 15-month pursuit to evict gangs. After they left, the cops 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 may cost 1m reais ($300,000) in addition to their normal wages. More valuable, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy for a democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, to never maintain order everyday. And transforming a last-resort show of force into a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires to your much different role. A draft from the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the term appears merely one-tenth as frequently mainly because it does inside a similar British analysis from 2015-but long on desirable “capabilities”. Principally, it posits, Brazil must protect its natural riches. That risk may appear remote. But if pessimistic forecasts of climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority is really a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will need to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for the permanent national guard, beginning from 7,000 men, in order to alleviate the burden about the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this idea.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear really are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders in the vast rainforest or perhaps the “Blue Amazon”, as the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil need to have a flexible rapid-reaction force, able to intervene anywhere at the moment’s notice.
Which requires modern equipment and small groups of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work on contracts to limit these to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters from the defence budget goes toward payroll and pensions, leaving just a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the states, the ratio will be the reverse.
Ahead of the recession took root, Brazil was moving towards these ends. In 2015 it decided 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 attempt with Ukraine to build a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. A location-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% in the border. A 32bn-real nuclear-powered submarine is nowhere near completion. And the country’s only aircraft carrier, never battle-ready, was mothballed in February.
In a chronilogical age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. As the air force only provides one supply flight each month into a border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais each hour. And then in January the army was called in to quell prison riots inside the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again in a short time.