FEW places illustrate modern role in the Brazilian army much better than Tabatinga, a major city of 62,000 on the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not budged ever since the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there in 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. Just last year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. Within 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 is 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 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 foreseeable future Brazil hopes to discourage foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining control of sprawling, varied terrain is not really cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. And the army’s own top brass state 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; during their 1st year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again after the junta fell in 1985, as the new leaders sought to forge a modern 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 resist nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, government entities 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. However its peacekeeping contribution ranks just ahead of 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.
Many 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 long been attracted to the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is claimed to possess owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is additionally responsible for “law-and-order operations”. Troops really are a common sight during events like elections or perhaps the 2016 Olympics.
However, the army’s remit has expanded to mundane police work. Decades of overspending and a long recession have drained the coffers on most Brazilian states. Although just 20% of the requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still constitute an increasing share from the army’s workload. During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the amount number from the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed by this trend. Unlike politicians and law enforcement officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Inspite of the shadow in the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often position the army at the top.
Soldiers are trying to adapt to their new role. In a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they can be exposed to tear-gas and stun grenades, therefore they know what such weapons seem like before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the end of your army’s 15-month mission to evict gangs. As soon as they left, the police resumed their trigger-happy ways. Soon the gangsters were back, too.
Nonetheless, blurring the lines between national defence and police force is perilous. Soldiers make costly cops: a day’s deployment of a few thousand can cost 1m reais ($300,000) in addition to their normal wages. More significant, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy for any democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, to not 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 some very different role. A draft of your next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the word appears only one-tenth as frequently as 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 global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority can be a daunting prospect. First, Brazil should strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called to get a permanent national guard, beginning from 7,000 men, to alleviate the burden on the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this idea.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear certainly are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders in the vast rainforest or maybe the “Blue Amazon”, as being the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil need to have a flexible type of rapid-reaction force, in a position to 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 these to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters of the defence budget goes toward payroll and pensions, leaving merely a sliver for kit and maintenance. In america, the ratio may be the reverse.
Before the recession took root, Brazil was moving towards these ends. In 2015 it agreed 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 effort with Ukraine to develop a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. A place-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.
Within an age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. As the air force only provides one supply flight each month to your border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, needs 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 may be summoned there again in a short time.