FEW places illustrate the current role in the Brazilian army much better than Tabatinga, a major city of 62,000 in the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not yet budged because 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. This past year they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. In a small army-run zoo-house to toucans, a jaguar or even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The very last time a large Brazilian city was attacked was in 1711, whenever 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 claim that a dearth of military adversaries will not 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 power over sprawling, varied terrain is not 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-designed for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned during 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 right after the junta fell in 1985, as being 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 us government has received to figure out 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 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.
Several 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 always been interested in the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is said to obtain owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is likewise liable 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 as well as a long recession have drained the coffers on most Brazilian states. Although just 20% of the requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still comprise an increasing share of your army’s workload. During 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 law enforcement officers, servicemen are noticed as honest, competent and kind. Inspite of the shadow in the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often place the army at the very top.
Soldiers are attempting to conform to their new role. With a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they can be put through tear-gas and stun grenades, so that they determine what such weapons seem like before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the final of the army’s 15-month pursuit to evict gangs. As soon as they left, the cops 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 a few thousand could cost 1m reais ($300,000) in addition to their normal wages. More valuable, over-reliance upon the army is unhealthy for any democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, never to 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 into a much different role. A draft of the next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the phrase appears just one-tenth as much mainly because it does inside 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 climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority can be a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will have to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for any permanent national guard, beginning from 7,000 men, to ease the burden in 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 perhaps the “Blue Amazon”, as the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will require an adaptable rapid-reaction force, capable of intervene anywhere at the moment’s notice.
Which requires modern equipment and small teams of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work on contracts to limit those to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters from the defence budget goes to payroll and pensions, leaving simply a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the United States, the ratio is 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 develop a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. An area-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% in 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 ages of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Since the air force only provides one supply flight each month to a border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, must charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais per hour. And then in January the army was called straight into quell prison riots inside the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again in a short time.