FEW places illustrate modern role of your Brazilian army much better than Tabatinga, a major city of 62,000 about 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 inside 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. Inside a small army-run zoo-the place to find toucans, a jaguar and even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The past time a large Brazilian city was attacked is 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 how the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists say that a dearth of military adversaries fails to 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 control of sprawling, varied terrain is not cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. And 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-suited for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned through 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 after the junta fell in 1985, as the new leaders sought to forge a modern 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 figure out 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 before 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.
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 get owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army can also be accountable for “law-and-order operations”. Troops 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 as well as a long recession have drained the coffers of many Brazilian states. Although just 20% of their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still comprise an expanding share of the army’s workload. In the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the number from your previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed from 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 at the top.
Soldiers are attempting to conform to their new role. With a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, these are put through tear-gas and stun grenades, so that they determine what such weapons feel as if before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the final 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 may cost 1m reais ($300,000) on top of their normal wages. More essential, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy for the democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, never to maintain order regular. And transforming a last-resort show of force in 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 expression appears merely one-tenth as frequently since it does in the similar British analysis from 2015-but long on desirable “capabilities”. Principally, it posits, Brazil must protect its natural riches. That risk may appear remote. But if pessimistic forecasts of global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority can be a daunting prospect. First, Brazil must strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for 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 are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders inside 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 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 with contracts that limit these 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 the United States, the ratio may be 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 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 your 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.
In a chronilogical age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. For the reason that air force only provides one supply flight each month into a border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has got to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais hourly. And then 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 might be summoned there again before long.