FEW places illustrate the current role in the Brazilian army 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 considering that the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there in the 1700s. But Júlio Nagy, a nearby commander, has his sights trained on unconventional threats. In February and March his troops intercepted 3.7 tonnes of cannabis. A year ago 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 major Brazilian city was attacked is at 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 that the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists say that a dearth of military adversaries will not justify skimping on defence. Criminal gangs operating in border areas can overwhelm civilian police, and down the road Brazil hopes to deter foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining control over sprawling, varied terrain is just not 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-best for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned during the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; throughout 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 contemporary 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, the government has had to find ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, in 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 for ages been attracted to the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, has been said to get owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is additionally 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 as well as a long recession have drained the coffers on most Brazilian states. Although just 20% of their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still form an expanding share in the army’s workload. In the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the number through the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed through this trend. Unlike politicians and police officers, servicemen are noticed as honest, competent and kind. Despite the shadow from the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often put the army towards the top.
Soldiers are attempting to adjust to their new role. At the training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they can be subjected to tear-gas and stun grenades, so that they really know what such weapons seem like before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the conclusion of your army’s 15-month mission 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) in addition to their normal wages. More essential, over-reliance upon 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 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 phrase appears only one-tenth as much since 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. But if pessimistic forecasts of global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army for this priority is really a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will need to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called to get a permanent national guard, starting with 7,000 men, in order to alleviate the burden in the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this concept.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear can be a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders from the vast rainforest or even the “Blue Amazon”, as the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will be needing a versatile rapid-reaction force, capable to intervene anywhere with a moment’s notice.
Which requires modern equipment and small teams of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work with contracts that limit those to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters of the defence budget goes to payroll and pensions, leaving just a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the states, the ratio may be the reverse.
Before 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 spending on military equipment has fallen by two-thirds since 2012, leaving a roster of half-baked projects. An effort 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.
Inside an ages of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. For the reason that air force only provides one supply flight monthly into a border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has got to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais per hour. And in January the army was called straight into quell prison riots from the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men may be summoned there again eventually.