FEW places illustrate the current role of the Brazilian army superior to 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 since the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there inside 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. In a small army-run zoo-the place to find toucans, a jaguar or even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The final time a major 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 the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists state that a dearth of military adversaries fails 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 will not be cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. Along with 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-designed for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned during the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; in their 1st 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 resist nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, the government has received to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, that 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.
Most 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 always been interested in the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is said to have owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is likewise in charge of “law-and-order operations”. Troops can be a common sight during events like elections or maybe the 2016 Olympics.
However, the army’s remit has expanded to mundane police work. Decades of overspending along with a long recession have drained the coffers of most Brazilian states. Although just 20% of their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still constitute a developing share in the army’s workload. During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-twice the number from the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed through this trend. Unlike politicians and law enforcement officers, servicemen are noticed as honest, competent and kind. Despite the shadow of the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often position the army towards the top.
Soldiers are attempting to adapt to their new role. At a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they can be subjected to tear-gas and stun grenades, hence they determine what such weapons think that before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the conclusion of the army’s 15-month pursuit to evict gangs. When they left, the authorities 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 could cost 1m reais ($300,000) in addition to their normal wages. More essential, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy to get 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 into a much different role. A draft of the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the phrase appears just one single-tenth as often because 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 about this priority is actually a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will need to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for any permanent national guard, starting with 7,000 men, to alleviate the burden about 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 inside the vast rainforest or the “Blue Amazon”, as being the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will be needing an adaptable rapid-reaction force, able to intervene anywhere at a moment’s notice.
That requires modern equipment and small groups of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces focus on contracts that limit them to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters from the defence budget will go to payroll and pensions, leaving simply a sliver for kit and maintenance. In america, the ratio is 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 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 space-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% in the border. A 32bn-real nuclear-powered submarine is nowhere near completion. Along with 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. Since the air force only provides one supply flight monthly to a border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, needs to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais per hour. And in January the army was called into quell prison riots inside the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men might be summoned there again before long.