FEW places illustrate the present day role in the 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 yet 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. Just last year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. In a small army-run zoo-home to toucans, a jaguar or even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The past time a big Brazilian city was attacked was 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 the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists say that a dearth of military adversaries is not going to 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 of sprawling, varied terrain will not be cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. As well as the army’s own top brass claim that its current form-heavy on low-skilled personnel, light on equipment, and increasingly diverted towards routine policing-is ill-suited for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned in the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; throughout their first year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again once 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 face up to nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, government entities has already established to find 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 ahead of neighbouring Uruguay’s, whose population is smaller than that of nine different Brazilian cities. For the bulk 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 interested in the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is claimed to have owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is also responsible for “law-and-order operations”. Troops are 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% in their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still constitute a growing share of 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 by this trend. Unlike politicians and police officers, servicemen are noticed as honest, competent and kind. In spite of the shadow of your dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often put the army at the top.
Soldiers are attempting to get accustomed to their new role. In a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, these are exposed to tear-gas and stun grenades, hence they really know what such weapons seem like before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the conclusion from the army’s 15-month mission 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 law enforcement is perilous. Soldiers make costly cops: a day’s deployment of some thousand may cost 1m reais ($300,000) along with their normal wages. More valuable, over-reliance upon the army is unhealthy for the democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, to never maintain order day to day. 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 some much different role. A draft of your next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the term appears just one-tenth as much as 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. However if pessimistic forecasts of global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army with this priority can be a daunting prospect. First, Brazil should strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for a permanent national guard, beginning from 7,000 men, in order to alleviate the stress about the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this idea.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear are 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 a versatile rapid-reaction force, capable to intervene anywhere at a moment’s notice.
That will require modern equipment and small groups 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 your defence budget goes to payroll and pensions, leaving only a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the usa, the ratio is definitely the reverse.
Ahead of 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 effort with Ukraine to construct 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. And also the country’s only aircraft carrier, never battle-ready, was mothballed in February.
In a chronilogical age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Since the air force only provides one supply flight each month into a border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, needs to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais hourly. And also in January the army was called into quell prison riots from the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men could be summoned there again before long.