FEW places illustrate modern role from the Brazilian army better than Tabatinga, a major city of 62,000 about the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not budged because the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there in the 1700s. But Júlio Nagy, a local commander, has his sights trained on unconventional threats. In February and March his troops intercepted 3.7 tonnes of cannabis. This past year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. Within a small army-run zoo-home to toucans, a jaguar and even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The last time a huge Brazilian city was attacked was 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 how the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists state that a dearth of military adversaries will not justify skimping on defence. Criminal gangs operating in border areas can overwhelm civilian police, and later on Brazil hopes to deter foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining power over sprawling, varied terrain is not really 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-suited for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned in the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; throughout their first year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again following 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 government has experienced to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. But its peacekeeping contribution ranks just before neighbouring Uruguay’s, whose population is smaller compared to 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.
Most of these operations fall within the army’s mission. Federal law grants it policing powers within 150km (93 miles) of Brazil’s land border. International gangs have always been fascinated by the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is said to get owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is likewise accountable for “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 plus a long recession have drained the coffers of the majority of Brazilian states. Although just 20% with their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still form a growing share in the army’s workload. In the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the amount number in the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed through this trend. Unlike politicians and police officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Regardless of the shadow from the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often placed the army at the top.
Soldiers want to adapt to their new role. At the training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they can be exposed to tear-gas and stun grenades, so that they determine what such weapons feel as if before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the conclusion of your army’s 15-month pursuit to evict gangs. Once they left, law enforcement 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 can cost 1m reais ($300,000) on top of their normal wages. More valuable, over-reliance upon the army is unhealthy for a democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, to not maintain order everyday. 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 much different role. A draft of the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the phrase appears merely one-tenth as frequently because it does in a 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 global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army on this priority is a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will have to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for a permanent national guard, beginning with 7,000 men, in order to alleviate the stress on 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 inside the vast rainforest or the “Blue Amazon”, because the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will be needing a flexible type of rapid-reaction force, in a position to intervene anywhere at the moment’s notice.
That requires modern equipment and small groups of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work towards contracts that limit these to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters of your defence budget will go to payroll and pensions, leaving only a sliver for kit and maintenance. In america, the ratio is definitely the reverse.
Prior to 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 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% of your 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.
Within an chronilogical age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. For the reason that air force only provides one supply flight monthly to some border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais per hour. And then in January the army was called directly into quell prison riots inside the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men may be summoned there again before long.