FEW places illustrate the present day role in 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 considering that the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there within 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. Last year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. In 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 last time a large Brazilian city was attacked was in 1711, every 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 say that a dearth of military adversaries fails 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 over sprawling, varied terrain will not be cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. And also 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-designed 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 an advanced 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, government entities has received 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 prior to 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 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 fascinated by the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is said to obtain owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is likewise accountable for “law-and-order operations”. Troops really are 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 and 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 an increasing share of your army’s workload. In 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 police officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Inspite of the shadow of the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often put the army at the top.
Soldiers want to adjust to their new role. At a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, these are put through 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 end of your 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 police force 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 significant, over-reliance upon the army is unhealthy to get a democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, to never maintain order daily. And transforming a last-resort show of force in to a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires into a much different role. A draft in the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the term appears merely one-tenth as much as 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 may appear remote. But when pessimistic forecasts of climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority can be a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will have to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for a permanent national guard, starting with 7,000 men, to ease the stress in the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this concept.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders within the vast rainforest or maybe the “Blue Amazon”, as the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will be needing a flexible type of rapid-reaction force, able to intervene anywhere at a moment’s notice.
That needs modern equipment and small teams of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work with contracts that limit these people to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters from the defence budget would go to payroll and pensions, leaving simply a sliver for kit and maintenance. In america, the ratio will be the reverse.
Just 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 spending on military equipment has fallen by two-thirds since 2012, leaving a roster of half-baked projects. An effort with Ukraine to construct a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. A space-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% from 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.
Within an ages of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Since the air force only provides one supply flight a month to some border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, needs to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais hourly. And in January the army was called directly into quell prison riots from the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again eventually.