FEW places illustrate the current role in the Brazilian army superior to Tabatinga, a city of 62,000 on the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not budged because 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. This past year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. In a small army-run zoo-the location of toucans, a jaguar or even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The past time a huge Brazilian city was attacked is in 1711, when 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 this 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 say 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; during 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 resist nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, the us government has received to find ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, to which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. Nonetheless 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.
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 for ages been interested in 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 also accountable for “law-and-order operations”. Troops certainly are 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 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 make up an expanding share of your army’s workload. During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the number from the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed with this trend. Unlike politicians and law enforcement officers, servicemen are noticed as honest, competent and kind. Regardless of the shadow of the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often placed the army on the top.
Soldiers are trying to get accustomed to their new role. At a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, these are put through tear-gas and stun grenades, so that they really know what such weapons feel as if before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the final in the 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 some thousand can cost 1m reais ($300,000) along with their normal wages. More essential, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy for any democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, not to 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 to a very different role. A draft of the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the term appears only one-tenth as often mainly because 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. However if pessimistic forecasts of climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority is really a daunting prospect. First, Brazil should strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for a permanent national guard, beginning from 7,000 men, to alleviate the stress about the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this idea.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear can be a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders inside the vast rainforest or even the “Blue Amazon”, as being the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will need a versatile rapid-reaction force, able to intervene anywhere with 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 would go to payroll and pensions, leaving simply a sliver for kit and maintenance. In america, the ratio is definitely the reverse.
Ahead of 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 place-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% in 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 age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Because the air force only provides one supply flight monthly to your border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais an hour. And in January the army was called in to quell prison riots from the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again before long.