Brazil’s Escalating Role in the Drug War
Brazil began bolstering its border security almost as soon as Plan Colombia surfaced in 1999. After three years of military expansion, the Brazil-Colombia border is bristling with new installations. Among them is a new air force base, a naval base, and a set of border platoons stretching from Tabatinga through an area known as the Dog´s Head, where Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil meet. A new jungle brigade based in the Amazon city of Tefe provides support for the 2,500 troops stationed along the 1,000-mile border. These ground forces are supplemented with naval and marine units as well as aircraft at the new Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira airbase.
The Brazilian military has also been busy putting in new roads, bridges, schools, health clinics, water wells and riverboat docks throughout the heavily indigenous area with a population of some 100,000. The Brazilian buildup, part of a revamped older border development program know as Calha Norte, includes $14.5 million in military security spending and $10.5 million in social development, most of it spent in the Colombian border region.
The government has also dispatched to the border a 200-man federal police task force known as Operation Cobra to further bolster security and fight drug trafficking. Brazil says its programs are preventive medicine aimed at protecting the Amazon and that most activities are directed at controlling drug trafficking, stopping illegal logging, and clearing out poaching gold miners.
As early as 1996, Brazil and the Raytheon Corporation began constructing a $1.4 billion radar system called System for Amazon Surveillance (SIVAM). Announced with much fanfare at the 1992 Rio Earth Conference, the project is about 70 percent complete and will be inaugurated in Manaus on July 25. This system uses radar stations, air reconnaissance and some satellite support to monitor air traffic, maritime movement, border activity, and intercept communications of all types. SIVAM will also keep track of weather patterns and land use, while making rural telecommunications in the Amazon more efficient.
While originally designed to save the Amazon rainforest from various types of abuse, it is expected that its Manta FOL-type reconnaissance abilities will also be used to stop drug pilots from entering Brazil and provide timely information to border units. The Brazilian air force estimates that some 200 planes flew into Brazil illegally in 2001 and is calling for the government to issue a shoot down regulation similar to the type in place in Colombia and Peru. Last year, the U.S.-Peruvian program resulted in the accidental shooting down of a missionary plane.
Brazil stressed that it was not interested in becoming part of the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia when the border buildup began. In October 2000, Admiral Hector Blecker, Brazil’s assistant chief of intelligence, told the Brazilian congress that while it was obvious the probable impact of Plan Colombia would require Brazil undertake police, environmental and social action programs in the border area, “the idea of a multinational military operation in the Brazilian Amazon is unacceptable.”
During the congressional hearings it was stressed that the environmental impact to the Brazilian Amazon from Colombian aerial spraying, and the possible use of a mycoherbicide could destroy legitimate crop production along Brazil’s jungle rivers. Blecker is concerned that “chemical agents such as glyphosate and biological agents such as fusarium oxysporum in the Putumayo and Caquetá rivers will flow into the Ica and Japura rivers respectively.”
But just as the United States originally claimed that Plan Colombia would confine itself to fighting drug trafficking but is now expanding to include counterinsurgency operations, Brazil role in the war on drugs has also experienced mission creep. Recent air, land, and sea maneuvers along the Brazil-Colombia border involving 4,000 men sent a clear signal that Brazil intends to use force to keep guerrillas and drug traffickers out of its territory.
United States involvement on the Brazilian side of the border is also ratcheting up. In September 2001, Brazil signed a bilateral letter of agreement with the United States for counternarcotics activities that call for mutual cooperation and U.S. aid for Operation Cobra and other counter drug trafficking operations. The agreement also pumps funds into the newly created National Secretariat for Public Security, which has unified control over Brazil’s Federal and local police forces.
Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, while still officially claiming that Brazil is not involved in Plan Colombia, strongly endorsed Colombian President Andrés Pastrana’s decision earlier this year to terminate the demilitarized zone granted to the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Cardoso also called the election of Alvaro Uribe in May a “clear example of the vigor of democratic ideas in South America.”
Despite Brazilian contentions to the contrary, South America’s biggest and most prosperous country is slipping deeper into the drug war and the Colombian Conflict. In March, Brazilian military officers visited the Pentagon where they exchanged views with U.S. officers and gave presentations on Brazil’s border security and development program.
On a recent visit to Brazil, Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, expressed Washington’s desire for internationalizing intervention in Colombia’s conflict, “We think that the threat to Colombia’s democracy is a common threat not just to the United States and Brazil, but to the whole Hemisphere. And, if countries are worried about the spillover effect of, say, ‘Plan Colombia’, they should be even more worried about the effect of not stopping the terrorists and the narcotics traffickers inside Colombian borders.”
Operation Cobra is also growing in scope and sophistication. In December, Brazil opened a regional intelligence center at Tabatinga whose mission is to sort through intelligence on border activities, which it will then share with Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and the United States. Additionally, Brazil has completed work on seven new police installations along the border stretching from Tabatinga to Vila Bittencourt.
Brazil has both shed blood and suffered casualties along the Colombian border. In February Brazilian troops attacked a boat with suspected FARC guerrillas, killing six persons near Apoporis. The same month a Brazilian soldier disappeared under unclear circumstances. In March, 197 indigenous persons of the Maku nation sought refuge at Vila Bittencourt charging that the FARC had threatened them. During maneuvers in May, Brazilian soldiers suffered two casualties–one wounding of a soldier outside Tabatinga apparently involved Colombians, while another soldier disappeared along the Rio Negro.
Colonel Roberto de Paula Avelino, who manages Calha Norte from a campus-like building in Brasilia, downplays the incidents, claiming the border area is fairly quiet despite the FARC presence on the Colombian side. He also believes that a major incursion by uniformed FARC guerrillas is unlikely, “I don´t think the FARC is interested in making a new enemy.”
De Paula Avelino’s analysis stands in sharp contrast to recent statements about Colombia’s illegal armed groups made by Reich, “If these people work to ever gain control over larger parts of Colombian territory, I think there is no doubt that they would take their business, which is narcotics and terrorism, to other countries. I don’t think they are only interested in taking control by force of Colombia. I don’t think they know any borders. Terrorists sans frontiers, to coin a phrase.”
Not surprisingly, the FARC disagrees with Reich’s analysis. Oliverio Medna, the FARC International Committee representative in Brasilia, said FARC commanders have been ordered to keep their troops out of neighboring countries. “We are hoping for reciprocity from the neighboring governments. Reciprocity in what sense? If we don´t cause problems in the territories of the neighboring countries, that their governments will abstain from intervening and getting mixed up in the internal affairs of Colombia. We are not a problem for any state other than Colombia.”
Medna claims that talk of FARC border incursions is part of a policy aimed at discrediting the rebel group, “If a tree falls in the Ecuadorian jungle, they says its the FARC’s fault. If in Peru a cow shows up dead in the morning, it’s the FARC. Our plans do not include intervention in the territory of any country.”
Alcides Costa Vaz, an international relations professor at the University of Brazil, says Colombia is not a hot political issue in Brazil, “Issues of national security have ranked very low on the domestic political agenda. There is not a very strong position in public opinion. The last few years economic issues have ranked very high.” He went on to stress that, “So far Brazil has resisted the idea of having a active role,” but if Colombia asks for regional alliances and cooperation, Costa Vaz believes Brazil will probably cooperate.
Whatever the semantics, Brazil is involved in the Colombian conflict through the sharing of intelligence and an escalation of military and police activities inside Brazil aimed at stopping drug and arms trafficking and preventing a spillover of the violence. This is likely to continue even if the leftist Workers Party candidate Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva wins the fall elections for the presidency.
Workers Party Senator Tião Viana, who represents the Amazon state of Acre, said the party opposes U.S. bases and U.S. troops in Brazil but supports exchange of intelligence, training, and cooperation in operations as long as Brazilians execute them. “In the Brazilian Amazon there’s a clandestine infiltration of groups from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia involved in drug trafficking and clandestine wood extraction,” Viana said. “The Amazon is very unprotected. There’s a need for troops and intelligence operations.”
The Cobra Program is a natural for U.S. involvement, and cooperation between the two countries began to increase last year when DEA agents toured Brazil’s Amazon operations. Brazilian Federal Police and the DEA also cooperated in the arrest in Colombia of Brazilian drug lord Luis Fernando da Costa, know as Fernando Beira-Mar (Seaside Freddy) and the bust a few months later of his top lieutenant Leomar Olviera Barbosa in Paraguay.
According to recent congressional testimony by DEA chief Asa Hutchinson, DEA agents in Colombia and Brazil are currently working to capture of Tomas Molina Caracas of the 16th Front of the FARC. The DEA is also fielding special teams of DEA and Brazilian police to investigate money laundering. It has been estimated that as much as 25 percent of Colombian drug money may be hidden in Brazilian accounts.
Enticing Brazil into greater cooperation may be the increased availability of funds for equipment, training, operations and development projects, and a decade-long growth in domestic drug use and drug-related violence. The Bush administration’s Andean Regional Initiative calls for Brazil to receive $6 million in counterdrug assistance and $12.6 million in social development funds this year, while a 2003 Bush administration request calls for another $12 million in counternarcotics funds.
Recently, the presidents of Brazil, Peru and Ecuador joined together to request $1.3 billion from the Inter-American Development Bank for use in border social programs aimed at dealing with the spillover from Plan Colombia. President Cardoso raised the fight against drugs to front burner status in a national speech June 19 when he compared it to the country’s earlier struggle against hyperinflation. At the same time the government released a study estimating that there were 1.7 million cocaine addicts in Brazil.
Both increased domestic consumption and the creation of cocaine processing centers in Brazil are seen as potentially undermining U.S. drug war efforts. Brazilian traffickers are building a niche for themselves in designer drugs, while the nation’s large chemical industry provides an opportunity to obtain drug-processing chemicals.
Drug traffickers are active and powerful throughout the country. A 2001 Congressional inquiry into drug trafficking and impunity called for the indictment of 800 persons, among them politicians and police.
Fearful that Brazil could rival the U.S. and Europe as a drug market, the United States has been tinkering with Brazil’s drug policies. It has jointly designed with Brazil a new series of drug courts and it finances a U.S.-style DARE school drug prevention program. It is also backing a study of Brazilian attitudes toward drug use.
Drugs are seen as the fuel for the country’s tremendous criminal violence problem and increase in youth murders. In Rio de Janeiro some 10,000 persons are alleged to be active in local drug distribution and street sales. According to a study by the International Labor Organization, many of the persons involved are children. “What you find is that since 1995 more children have taken up drug trafficking. They start as young as eight years old,” said Pedro Americo F. Oliveira, head of the ILO Child Labor section in Brazil. “They come from the poorest of the poor. They are one-parent families. The parent works and the child doesn’t go to school.” What is the average life expectancy for a child drug dealer? One year, says Oliveira.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report the situation is exacerbated by the regular use of torture and murder by the Brazilian police forces. The gruesome killing of Brazilian Investigative Journalist Tim Lopez by a drug trafficking gang has sparked a police crackdown in the Rio de Janeiro favelas that may prove to be a prototype for harsh action to come. A combined task force launched by the federal government includes military intelligence units and the use of combined federal and local police squads. Some people are advocating military occupation of many of Brazil’s troubled urban areas.
The rapid escalation of the drug war in the last year by the Cardoso administration runs the risk of exacerbating tinder box social conditions. Costa Vaz warns that over-militarization of the drug war, especially in poor neighborhoods, will backfire unless enforcement programs are designed carefully. “We have a very sensitive and dangerous domestic situation. What is going on in Rio right now is generating a situation of social conflict. The door to civil war will open if you bring in the military. We will not solve Colombia’s problems, we will probably reproduce them.”
This article originally appeared in Colombia Report, an online journal that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).