FEW places illustrate modern role in the Brazilian army a lot 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 yet budged ever since the Portuguese built a now-ruined fort there inside 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. A year ago they destroyed an airstrip built by illegal gold miners. In the small army-run zoo-home to toucans, a jaguar or even a manatee-garish macaws rescued from animal traffickers squawk intermittently.
The past time a large Brazilian city was attacked is 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 the country’s armed forces “do not possess classic military attributes”.
Brazilian strategists state 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 power over sprawling, varied terrain is not really cheap. Nonetheless, new threats require new responses. Along with 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-best for the government’s stated aims.
Brazil’s army burgeoned through the cold war. In 1964 its generals staged a coup; throughout their first year in power defence spending rose by 75%. The military budget surged again once the junta fell in 1985, since 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 government has received to find ways to deploy them. Brazil leads the UN’s stabilisation mission in Haiti, in which it chips in 1,277 peacekeepers. However 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.
A number 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 fascinated by 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 can also be in charge of “law-and-order operations”. Troops certainly 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 of many Brazilian states. Although just 20% of their requests for soldiers for emergency assistance are approved, they still constitute an expanding share of your army’s workload. During 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 through this trend. Unlike politicians and law enforcement officers, servicemen are noticed as honest, competent and kind. Inspite of the shadow of the dictatorship, confidence rankings of institutions often position the army towards the top.
Soldiers want to adjust to their new role. At the training centre in Campinas, near São Paulo, they may be exposed to tear-gas and stun grenades, so they determine what such weapons feel 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 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 may cost 1m reais ($300,000) on the top of their normal wages. More important, 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 in a routine presence risks undermining public confidence in civilian authorities.
The army itself aspires to a very different role. A draft of your next official defence review is short on specific “threats”-the expression appears just one single-tenth as much since 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 may appear remote. However if pessimistic forecasts of climate change materialise, lush Brazil might look enticing to desperate foreign powers.
Refocusing the army on this priority can be a daunting prospect. First, Brazil will have to strengthen its policing capacity. Mr Jungmann has called for a permanent national guard, beginning from 7,000 men, to ease the burden around the army. Michel Temer, the centre-right president, backs this concept.
Beyond that, Brazil’s armed forces of yesteryear really are a poor fit to combat the threats of tomorrow. To fend off intruders in the vast rainforest or perhaps the “Blue Amazon”, as the country’s oil-rich territorial waters are known, Brazil will be needing a versatile rapid-reaction force, able to 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 with contracts that limit them to eight years’ service, preventing their professionalisation. Three-quarters from the defence budget will go to payroll and pensions, leaving simply a sliver for kit and maintenance. In the United States, the ratio will be the reverse.
Just before 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 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. And the country’s only aircraft carrier, never battle-ready, was mothballed in February.
In an chronilogical age of austerity, even routine operations are coming under strain. Since the air force only provides one supply flight monthly to some border garrison in Roraima, a northern state, Gustavo Dutra, its commander, has got to charter private aircraft at 2,000 reais each hour. And in January the army was called straight into quell prison riots in the state, whose precarious finances have stretched its security budget. General Dutra frets his men can be summoned there again eventually.