OE Watch Commentary: On 5 March the Brazilian newspaper O Globo published the following statistic-filled article detailing the increased amount of contraband seized and criminals apprehended along Brazil’s long and relatively open border frontier. At first glance the numbers are dramatic and sobering. However, while the amount of illicit goods, including drugs and military grade weapons, crossing the border might be rising, it is difficult to assess to what degree. The revelation is Brazil’s growing effort to control its borders in recent years, and hence a better understanding of what they are seizing and what they might be missing. Realizing the country is awash in illegal and often very dangerous contraband, the federal government has rolled out a number of border security initiatives in the past decade, but the task is herculean for multiple reasons.
First, the Brazilian armed forces are still haunted by the years of military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985). Significant segments of the population still recall military rule and fear a resurgent military as a result. Laws have been enacted and politicians have been reticent to use the military in what might be considered standard law enforcement roles, including the government’s recent decision to have the military take over security in crime riddenRio de Janeiro. This is understandable but frustrating to many in the security side of the government who believe there are currently no other options to maintain security and control along the country’s vast border—and in its major cities.
The second difficulty is the actual border zone itself. Brazil has one of the longest and most lightly defended land borders in the world, in part because a good portion of it is located in the Amazon. Roads are non-existent. Rivers are highways and are navigable depending on the season. The face of the Brazilian state on the Amazon frontier are nearly 40 Special Border Platoons. Take the case of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in Brazil’s far northwest, a region typically known as “the Dog’s Head” for its distinct geographic border resembling a barking dog. It is the home of the 2nd Jungle Brigade. The entire brigade supports seven Special Border Platoons strung out from Maturacá near the Venezuelan border to Bela Vista on the border with Columbia. The platoons are resupplied by boat and occasionally small plane when the weather is cooperative. However, the platoon in Cucuí is cut off from its airstrip and so all supply and support takes place on the Rio Negro in a six to ten hour boat ride, depending on the season.
While the federal government can deploy all branches of law enforcement for any given operation, there are only a handful of permanently located Federal Police in São Gabriel. While they conduct their own investigations, they are totally dependent on the army for logistics and to carry out law enforcement operations—a task that the army only recently has been granted within a 90-kilometer deep border zone. Moreover, the Special Border Platoons were created to secure a variety of government agencies on the frontier. In reality, only the army has shown up, and as the article states, 30,000 soldiers have been deployed for the entire national frontier. Many in Brazil believe that this is not enough. End OE Watch Commentary (Billingsley)