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Tonelero Battalion: Prepared for Special Operations

The military unit of amphibious commandos is based in Rio de Janeiro, but takes part in operations across the country.
Marcos Ommati/Diálogo | 4 March 2019

Colonel Stewart da Paixão Gomes commands the Tonelero Battalion, the Brazilian Marine Corps special operations unit. (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

The Tonelero Battalion is the Brazilian Marine Corps special operations unit. Its troops are specifically trained to execute and plan special operations. Diálogo talked to Marine Corps Colonel Stewart da Paixão Gomes, Tonelero Battalion commander, about the Brazilian military elite squad’s participation in the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, and addressed its similarities and differences with special forces of the region, among other topics.

Diálogo: How does the training of a Tonelero Battalion special operator differ from that of their counterparts in the region and the United States? 

Brazilian Marine Corps Colonel Stewart da Paixão Gomes, Tonelero Battalion commander: I will share my experience. I had the opportunity to serve as an exchange officer in the Paraguayan Navy’s Marine Corps in 2006, and the U.S. Marine Corps in 2014. I noticed several similarities between the special operations units, particularly regarding selection and training, which promote motivation and readiness among units. Combat experiences are the main difference, but the techniques, tactics, and procedures are very similar. The countries of the Americas carry out frequent exchanges such as combined exercises and training, and service member academic exchanges.

Naturally, depending on financial and technological resources available to each country, the equipment and means employed vary greatly, as well as the material available, which directly impacts training.

Diálogo: Regarding activities for law and order guarantee (GLO, in Portuguese), such as those of 2018 in which Tonelero participated in Rio de Janeiro, are they important because they are real-life situations?

Col. Stewart: Yes, all real life situations contribute to personnel development. Particularly in GLO activities, I noticed that operators and planners require specific preparation to align activities with rules of engagement stricter than what is typically expected during conflict situations.

Diálogo: Why?

Col. Stewart: Rules of engagement in a GLO operation comply with Brazilian law and not with international humanitarian law. Military needs should not determine actions, just as they don’t differentiate between criminals and law-abiding citizens. We can’t think in terms of the enemy or plan actions to undermine or destroy. We must adjust our capabilities toward repressive and overt activities to fight social conflict situations, where the main goal is to protect our forces and arrest criminals.

Diálogo: Can you describe the responsibilities as far as safety during major events, such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games?

Col. Stewart: At the time, there was a need for collaboration and integration between the ministries of Defense and Justice, and the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, with the creation of the Integrated Counterterrorism Committee. The military, federal, state, and municipal public security agencies coordinated activities, as well as agencies associated with public planning, transportation, and the organization of these events.

In addition, the Ministry of Defense integrated the capabilities of the three forces (Navy, Army, and Air Force), and coordinated the special operations troops, deploying them in regions where events were scheduled. This way, they could assign skilled personnel to carry out counterterrorism operations in each event’s host city.

To that extent, the Tonelero Battalion participated in activities with general staff representatives responsible for planning and carrying out regional activities, as well as establishing amphibious command groups (GRUCANF, in Portuguese) in the cities of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro.

Diálogo: What was the focus of the mission?

Col. Stewart: Well, our country doesn’t have a history of terror attacks, but the Olympic games do. For this reason, GRUCANF and other groups (service members and police officers) brought special operations capabilities to the area’s defense coordinators, such as facility recovery or hostage rescue.

As such, prior to those major events, units conducted simulations and trainings, combining activities in three areas: defense, public safety, and intelligence. They carried out various anti-terrorism activities (defense maneuvers) locally, providing counterterrorism-capable troops. The forces’ deployment and their activities mitigated the risks and increased responsiveness across the Brazilian territory. 

Diálogo: Do you think that this interoperability was the main lesson learned?

Col. Stewart: Absolutely. In addition to integrated planning, which participating departments and agencies developed jointly, there were many joint training and exchange activities among those involved. They were aware of the importance of safety and our responsibility for a safe outcome in our country.

The interaction between people and systems was a unique opportunity for mutual knowledge exchange and improved communication between various sectors. Exchange activities intensified. For instance, this battalion developed phases and trainings for some of the states’ civil and military police. Additionally, we provided continuous support to longstanding partners, such as the Special Operations Battalion, BOPE, and Special Resources Coordination, CORE, in Rio de Janeiro, to whom we offered firearms training, inflatable boat use, swimming, climbing, and fast-rope techniques (from helicopters).

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