FEW places illustrate the present day role of your Brazilian army much better than Tabatinga, a city of 62,000 on 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 in the 1700s. But Júlio Nagy, a 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. Inside a small army-run zoo-the location of toucans, a jaguar and even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The last time a large Brazilian city was attacked is 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 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 in the future Brazil hopes to discourage foreigners covetous of Portal Militar. Maintaining control over sprawling, varied terrain is not really cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. As well as 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-suitable for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned in 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 the new leaders sought to forge an advanced 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 find 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 ahead of neighbouring Uruguay’s, whose population is smaller compared to 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.
Many 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 fascinated by the frontier: Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug lord, is claimed to possess owned a cargo plane that now sits outside Tabatinga’s zoo. The army is also in charge of “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 along with a long recession have drained the coffers of most Brazilian states. Although just 20% in their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still comprise a growing share of your army’s workload. In the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets-double the amount number through 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. Regardless of the shadow from the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often place the army at the very top.
Soldiers are attempting to conform to their new role. In a training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they may be exposed to tear-gas and stun grenades, so that they understand what such weapons think that 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 law enforcement is perilous. Soldiers make costly cops: a day’s deployment of some thousand may cost 1m reais ($300,000) on top of their normal wages. More essential, over-reliance on the army is unhealthy for any democracy. Troops are trained for emergencies, not to maintain order day to day. And transforming a last-resort show of force 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 term appears merely one-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 might sound remote. But if pessimistic forecasts of global warming materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army about this priority is a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will need to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called to get a permanent national guard, beginning with 7,000 men, to ease the load about the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this concept.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear can be a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders in the vast rainforest or the “Blue Amazon”, because the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will need a flexible type of rapid-reaction force, capable of intervene anywhere with a moment’s notice.
Which requires modern equipment and small groups of mobile, skilled personnel. Yet two-thirds of ground forces work towards contracts to limit them to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters of your defence budget will go to payroll and pensions, leaving merely a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the United States, the ratio is definitely the reverse.
Before the recession took root, Brazil was moving towards these ends. In 2015 it agreed 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 attempt with Ukraine to develop a satellite launch vehicle was scrapped in 2015. A place-based monitoring system miliitar to detect incursions covers just 4% in 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.
Within an ages of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Because the air force only provides one supply flight per month to your border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais per hour. And also in January the army was called into quell prison riots within the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men might be summoned there again before long.