FEW places illustrate modern role of your Brazilian army better than Tabatinga, a major city of 62,000 around 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 within 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 and even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The past time a large 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 how the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists say that a dearth of military adversaries does not justify skimping on defence. Criminal gangs operating in border areas can overwhelm civilian police, and later on 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. And 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; in their first year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again following the junta fell in 1985, since 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 resist nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, the federal government has already established to find ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, to which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. But its peacekeeping contribution ranks just before 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.
Most 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 long been drawn to 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 is also accountable for “law-and-order operations”. Troops really 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 plus 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 comprise an increasing share from the army’s workload. During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the amount number in the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed with this trend. Unlike politicians and law enforcement officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Inspite of the shadow of the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often placed the army towards the top.
Soldiers are trying to get accustomed to their new role. In a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, these are put through tear-gas and stun grenades, so they determine what such weapons seem like before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the end from the army’s 15-month mission to evict gangs. When they left, the cops 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) in addition to their normal wages. More significant, over-reliance upon the army is unhealthy for a democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, to not 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 to a much different role. A draft of your next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the word appears merely one-tenth as much because it does within 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 must strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called to get a permanent national guard, beginning with 7,000 men, to relieve the stress about the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this idea.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear certainly are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders within the vast rainforest or the “Blue Amazon”, because the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will require a versatile rapid-reaction force, able to intervene anywhere with a moment’s notice.
That requires modern equipment and small groups of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work towards contracts that limit these people to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters in the defence budget will go to payroll and pensions, leaving simply a sliver for kit and maintenance. In america, the ratio is definitely the reverse.
Before 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 shelling out for military equipment has fallen by two-thirds since 2012, leaving a roster of half-baked projects. An effort with Ukraine to build a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. A place-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 an era of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. As the air force only provides one supply flight a 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 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 eventually.