FEW places illustrate the present day role of your Brazilian army superior to Tabatinga, a town of 62,000 on the shared border point between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The frontier, protected by Amazon rainforest, has not yet budged since the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there within 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. This past 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 past time a big 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 that 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 in the future Brazil hopes to discourage foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining power over sprawling, varied terrain is just not cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. As well as 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-suitable 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 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 face up to nominal budget cuts.
With 334,000 troops at its disposal, the us government has experienced to figure out ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. However 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 within 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 fascinated by the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is said to possess owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is also accountable for “law-and-order operations”. Troops are 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 on most Brazilian states. Although just 20% in their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still constitute a developing share of your army’s workload. In the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the number from the previous nine years combined.
Most Brazilians seem unfazed from this trend. Unlike politicians and police officers, servicemen are seen as honest, competent and kind. Regardless of the shadow of the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often place the army at the top.
Soldiers want to adapt to their new role. With a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they can be subjected to tear-gas and stun grenades, so that they determine what such weapons feel like before unleashing them on civilians. Residents of Rio’s shantytowns bemoan the conclusion of your army’s 15-month pursuit to evict gangs. After they left, the police 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 can cost 1m reais ($300,000) along with their normal wages. More valuable, over-reliance upon the army is unhealthy for a democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, never to maintain order day to day. And transforming a last-resort show of force right into a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires to your very different role. A draft of your next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the expression appears only 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 may appear remote. However, if pessimistic forecasts of climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority is really a daunting prospect. First, Brazil must strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for any permanent national guard, beginning with 7,000 men, to relieve the load on the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this concept.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear certainly are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders from the vast rainforest or even the “Blue Amazon”, since the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will be needing a flexible rapid-reaction force, in a position to intervene anywhere with 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 these to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters of your defence budget goes to payroll and pensions, leaving merely a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the states, the ratio will be the reverse.
Prior to 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 endeavor with Ukraine to create a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. An area-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% from the 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. As the air force only provides one supply flight per month to some border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais an hour. And also in January the army was called straight into quell prison riots within the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again before long.