FEW places illustrate the modern role from the Brazilian army much better than Tabatinga, a town of 62,000 around 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 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. In a small army-run zoo-home to toucans, a jaguar and even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The last time a major Brazilian city was attacked was 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 the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists point out 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 in the foreseeable future Brazil hopes to deter foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining power over sprawling, varied terrain will not be cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. And the army’s own top brass point out 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 throughout 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, as the new leaders sought to forge a modern day 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 federal government has received to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, that it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. But its peacekeeping contribution ranks just in front of neighbouring Uruguay’s, whose population is smaller compared to 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 within 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 obtain owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army can also be responsible for “law-and-order operations”. Troops can be a common sight during events like elections or 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 the requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still constitute an increasing share of the army’s workload. In the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-twice the number from 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 position the army at the very top.
Soldiers are trying to get accustomed to their new role. At the training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they can be exposed to 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 conclusion from the army’s 15-month pursuit to evict gangs. After they left, law enforcement 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 may cost 1m reais ($300,000) on the top of their normal wages. More important, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy to get a democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, not to maintain order regular. And transforming a last-resort show of force into a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires to some very different role. A draft in the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the term appears just one single-tenth as frequently since 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. But when pessimistic forecasts of global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army with this priority is really a daunting prospect. First, Brazil must strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called to get a permanent national guard, starting with 7,000 men, to ease the stress about the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this idea.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear really are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders inside the vast rainforest or maybe the “Blue Amazon”, as the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil need to have a flexible 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 with contracts to limit those to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters from the defence budget goes toward payroll and pensions, leaving only a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the states, the ratio is definitely 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 effort with Ukraine to construct a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. An area-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% of the border. A 32bn-real nuclear-powered submarine is nowhere near completion. And the country’s only aircraft carrier, never battle-ready, was mothballed in February.
Inside an chronilogical age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Because the air force only provides one supply flight each month to your border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, needs to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais per hour. And then in January the army was called into quell prison riots in the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men could be summoned there again in a short time.