The monitoring and defense of more than 15,000 kilometers of Brazil’s border is an ongoing challenge for the Brazilian authorities. Its defense, which has been made a priority by the Brazilian Army (EB, per its Portuguese acronym), is met with the difficulties of the Amazon region’s natural landscape. But, it is on the 1,600-kilometer border strip with Colombia that the Brazilian government’s attention and concern are greatest. With the peace accord signed between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, per their Spanish acronym), the Brazilian authorities fear an increase in trafficking, especially in weapons and drugs, at the border.
According to General Theophilo Gaspar de Oliveira, who leads the Army Logistics Command in Brasília, the transition period following pacification is quite sensitive. The general participated in a similar process in Nicaragua in the 1990s and pointed out that guerrillas generally do not hand in all their weapons as ordered. “Currently, the greatest risk is the entry of military-grade weapons such as the AR-15 and the AK-47, which arrive in Brazil and then go on to the capitals where they stoke urban crime,” he said. To the general, these weapons are worth more on the black market and are preferred by organized crime groups.
To increase border monitoring, an operational agreement was put in place between the Brazilian and Colombian defense ministers to work jointly on security by stepping up operations in the region. “The goal is to foster an exchange of information on intelligence and on the process of surrendering weapons by FARC members. That way we can have greater control over where the arms are headed, and we can try to inhibit the entry of clandestine weapons,” explained Brazil’s Minister of Defense, Raul Jungmann, in an interview with Diálogo.
According to Jungmann, this agreement also provides for joint operations to be conducted in the border region. “The idea is to work together with the neighboring country, and even take turns providing security if needed.” Operation Ágata, a joint operation with the Brazilian Armed Forces, is going to be augmented and redesigned to achieve more effective security. Operation Ágata is being carried out in coordination with other federal and state agencies in the Amazon border area for an indefinite period of time. According to the minister, the idea is to increase the number of operations throughout the year, discretely, to avoid predictability and ensure an efficient outcome.
Military presence at the border
Major General Antônio Manoel de Barros, chief of the Operations Center at the Amazon Military Command (CMA, per its Portuguese acronym), explained that for those on the front lines of defense, the period of pacification in a nation like Colombia will always create vulnerabilities for the neighboring country. “The FARC always used drug production as a revenue source. With their demobilization under the peace accord, they will be able to find other sources of money such as through the sale of the weapons used by their guerillas, or even by training other criminal groups,” Maj. Gen. Barros said.
CMA maintains security in the region. It has 20,000 Army personnel divided into four brigades, of which 10,000 are devoted exclusively to border security through 24 special platoons. CMA even has an engineering regiment responsible for providing infrastructure in the Amazon region. According to Maj. Gen. Barros, this synergy ensures the success of their work in the Amazon. “We have to be here, operating in partnership with all other government agencies responsible for security, such as the Navy, the Air Force, the Federal Police, the Military Police, and the Brazilian Institute for the Environment. In addition, we maintain excellent relations with Colombia, since we both have the same objective, which is fighting border crime,” Maj. Gen. Barros emphasized.
According to Maj. Gen. Barros, the greatest difficulties for ensuring vigilance in the region are the vast distances and weak infrastructure. “Getting to Tabatinga, a city on the border with Colombia, is possible only by air or sea. And the distance to Manaus, our main logistics center, is more than 1,000 kilometers away,” he said. He added that the agreement does not change what has been done; it merely boosts those operations.
The general finds military operations such as Ágata to be quite effective. “During these operations, we are able to provide enforcement over a considerable area. For instance, in our last Ágata operation, all the land and air operations we performed totaled over 260,000 kilometers, which is more than circling six times around the Earth,” Maj. Gen. Barros recounted. Yet he stressed that despite the mission’s difficulties, he is proud to be able to work on protecting this region of Brazil. “It is our constitutional duty to protect the Amazon, and it is great to serve society and my country,” he emphasized.
Gen. Theophilo noted the need for investment in technology, as well as in equipping border battalions in order to increase operational effectiveness. Night vision goggles, drones, and land radars for tracking aircraft flying below the level protected by air space control are just some of the equipment that, according to the general, can optimize their work in the Amazon jungle.
He also reported that weapons and equipment have been sent to CMA and that the Army has deployed additional battalions to reinforce the border contingent. “The Brazilian Navy has also stepped up its river monitoring, and while on patrol, they are on the lookout for guerrillas passing through,” he said. For the military, however, what will alleviate border crimes is the fixed and permanent presence of all institutions that provide border security. “All of the agencies associated with border security must keep permanent teams there, not just the armed forces,” he emphasized.
Gen. Theophilo’s greatest concern is that conflict at the border stirs up urban strife. “As long as we lack the resources that enable us to upgrade our technology with large vessels and equipment, we will continue playing catch-up after the damage is done. There is no point in taking palliative measures. What’s necessary is to dry up the criminal organizations’ resources.”
He believes that joint military operations are an effective tool in the fight against border trafficking, and has announced the AMAZONLOG 2017 exercise, sponsored by the Logistics Command to begin in November. The exercise is meant to be a reciprocal effort in providing humanitarian aid, focused on refugees. “Several nations have already confirmed their attendance, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Canada, Colombia, and the United States,” he stated.
Security concerns over the border with Colombia are not unique to the Brazilian government. This year Ecuador also signed on to a plan to come up with joint defense and security strategies. According to reports by the EFE News Agency, the Annual Binational Operational Plan was drafted on the basis of the joint effort already being made by both countries, and it should provide for greater security, peace, and stability in the border regions.