FEW places illustrate modern role of the Brazilian army better than Tabatinga, a town of 62,000 in the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not yet budged considering that the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there within 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. Last year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. Inside a small army-run zoo-the location of toucans, a jaguar or even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The last time a major 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 that the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists state that a dearth of military adversaries does not 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 the army’s own top brass say that its current form-heavy on low-skilled personnel, light on equipment, and increasingly diverted towards routine policing-is ill-suitable for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned throughout the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; in their first year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again after the junta fell in 1985, since 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 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.
Several of these operations fall inside 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 interested in the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, has been said to obtain owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is additionally liable 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% with their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still comprise a growing share from the army’s workload. During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the amount number through the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed with this trend. Unlike politicians and police officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Inspite of the shadow from the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often put the army on the top.
Soldiers are trying to conform to their new role. At the training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they are put through tear-gas and stun grenades, therefore they understand 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. As soon as they left, the authorities 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 some thousand may cost 1m reais ($300,000) on top of their normal wages. More essential, 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 some very different role. A draft from the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the phrase appears just one single-tenth as much since 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. However, if pessimistic forecasts of climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army on this priority is actually a daunting prospect. First, Brazil must strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for any permanent national guard, starting with 7,000 men, in order to alleviate the load around 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 perhaps the “Blue Amazon”, because the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will be needing a versatile rapid-reaction force, capable of intervene anywhere at the moment’s notice.
That will require modern equipment and small teams of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work towards contracts that limit them 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 the states, 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 create a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. An area-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.
Inside an age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. As the air force only provides one supply flight a month into a border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, must charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais per hour. As well as 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 might be summoned there again eventually.