FEW places illustrate the current role of your Brazilian army a lot 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 budged ever since the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there in the 1700s. But Júlio Nagy, the 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. Within 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 major Brazilian city was attacked is 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 this country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists state 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 power over sprawling, varied terrain is not really cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. As well as 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-best for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned in 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 face up to nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, the government has had to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, in which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. But 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 always been drawn to the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, has been said to possess owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is likewise liable for “law-and-order operations”. Troops can be a common sight during events like elections or even 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% of their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still form a developing share of your army’s workload. During 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 with 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 placed the army on the top.
Soldiers are trying to adapt to their new role. In a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they may be exposed to tear-gas and stun grenades, therefore they 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 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 some thousand could cost 1m reais ($300,000) on the top of their normal wages. More important, 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 right into a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires to some much different role. A draft in the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the word appears only one-tenth as much 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 might sound remote. But when pessimistic forecasts of global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army with this priority is actually 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 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 from the vast rainforest or the “Blue Amazon”, as being the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will require an adaptable rapid-reaction force, able to intervene anywhere with a moment’s notice.
That needs modern equipment and small groups of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work towards contracts to limit these people to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters in the defence budget goes to payroll and pensions, leaving only a sliver for kit and maintenance. In america, the ratio will be the reverse.
Prior to the recession took root, Brazil was moving towards these ends. In 2015 it decided 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 endeavor with Ukraine to build a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. A location-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% of 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.
In a ages of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Because the air force only provides one supply flight a month to some border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais each hour. And then 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 can be summoned there again before long.