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Brazil: Between Cooperation and Deterrence

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Note: The title was inspired by the PhD thesis of LTC Oscar Medeiros Filho of the Brazilian Army Strategic Studies Center, and used with his permission.

From October 12-14, 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, as part of a delegation from the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institutes, to Brazil’s own Army Strategic Studies Center, CEEEx.  My interactions while there highlighted the strategic challenges Brazil faces in the southern hemisphere, and reinforced my perception of the opportunities for the U.S. and Brazil to strengthen institutional-level relationships and collaborate on shared interests in the region.

Brazil shares a land border with every country in South America except Ecuador and Chile, which means it’s profoundly interested in state and non-state security dynamics throughout the continent.  Its 17,000 kilometers of land border create security challenges not unlike, but far more complex than those of the U.S.-Mexican border.  Not only is Brazil’s frontier some of the nation’s most remote and inaccessible territory, but the division of that boundary between 10 neighboring states magnifies the associated international security challenge. Finally, Brazil’s borders include nine separate “triple frontiers,” where the intersection of three national borders magnifies the problems of control and the associated opportunities for organized crime.

Brazil is adversely affected by illegal mining and timber both from the interior of Suriname and Guyana and from Colombia’s remote eastern plains, with Brazil’s Amazon river system frequently used to smuggle such illicit goods to the coast.  The economic crisis in Venezuela has displaced at least 40,000 refugees into the remote Brazilian state of Roraima, some of whom have migrated to Manaus, Belem, and to the southeast of the country.  The expansion of coca production in Colombia following the cessation of glyphosate spraying has spilled over the border with narco-trafficking activities on the Brazilian side of the border and expanded drug flows into Brazil.  In addition, the end to the conflict has displaced some former FARC combatants into Brazil, who are possibly training and selling weapons to powerful Brazilian gangs in the area such as the First Capital Command (PCC).

As on Brazil’s northern borders, the country’s western frontier is coping with the products of illegal mining and coca growing from Peru and Bolivia, which also travels through Brazil.  This includes one drug route going northward through Peru’s river system past Iquitos, into the Brazilian amazon at the tri-border area Tabatinga (Brazil)-Leticia (Colombia)-Cabalococha (Peru).  Drugs are also flown out of Peruvian river valleys such as those of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro rivers (known as the VRAEM) short distances into Brazil, where they are air-dropped to accomplices on the Brazilian side.  The aircraft then return to Peru before Brazilian air defense aircraft can respond.  Cocaine, coca paste and illegal mining products are also produced in the southeast of Peru (eg. Puno), and in Bolivia, before being smuggled into Brazil.  Paraguay, specifically the northeast provinces of Amambay and Concepcion, are the source of an estimated half of the marijuana grown in the region. The marijuana crop, along with other drugs, often flows into the country across the land border near the Paraguayan city of Pedro Juan Caballero, which has become a focus of struggle for control by Brazilian drug gangs such as the PCC.

In 2017, Brazilian authorities seized a record quantity of drugs, including 45 tons of cocaine, and 324 tons of marijuana.

Given such illicit flows across Brazil’s borders, many of the Brazilian analysts with whom I spoke see a connection between the gang-related violence in the slums of the country’s major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and criminal flows at the borders, making transnational organized crime one of Brazil’s principal security concerns.

Complementing such illicit flows, Brazil’s economic connectivity to the rest of the content, and to Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa, creates a complex array of strategic interests in its neighbors and the surrounding region.  The soy and iron exported to the PRC and elsewhere in Asia must traverse overland routes from Brazil’s interior to its coast, or alternatively, via rivers that pass through Argentine and Uruguayan territory to reach major ports.

The import and export of higher value-added products over the Andes to ports on the Latin American Pacific Coast occupies a modest but growing role in Brazil’s external commerce that increases the importance of Brazil’s economic relationships and infrastructure connections with Pacific-facing neighbors such as Peru and, indirectly, Chile.  Brazil’s commercial relationships with Europe and the East Coast of the United States similarly contribute to its interest in the Caribbean, along with from Brazil’s shared border with the continent’s Caribbean facing countries: Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana.  The 13 years that Brazil spent leading the MINUSTAH peacekeeping operation in Haiti (2004-2017) reflect, and contribute to, that interest.

The manner in which Brazil defines its security environment is arguably influenced by the way that it sees itself, with some of the contradictions in that self-conception reflected in tensions between its policy goals.  On one hand, many of the Brazilians with whom I spoke emphasized the nation’s identity as a large, substantially developed country dominated by a conservative, Western, Christian culture; others emphasize its cultural diversity and status as part of the developing world.  As a Western nation with a diverse economy, sophisticated military, and supporting military-industrial base, Brazil’s more conservative elements see the country as a natural partner of the United States in working toward a secure democratic region.  Brazil’s support of the United States against Axis submarines in World War II, and the Army division that it sent to Italy as part of the Allied campaign in Europe are key elements in this narrative.

On the other hand, Brazil’s sense of specialness stemming from its history as South America’s only independent European-born empire, and as a culturally diverse nation which has achieved substantial economic, technological and cultural development through its own unique path, means many Brazilians have adverse reactions to subordinating themselves to a U.S.-led security or economic framework in the hemisphere as “junior partner.”  Indeed, as a regional power, Brazil looks to the South American continent, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic, and to the West Coast of Africa as areas of its own “strategic interest.” Its sense of pride has, on occasion, led it to conclude that a weaker U.S. presence in these areas, plus options provided by multiple extra-hemispheric actors, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), could ultimately best serve its national interests and its strategic influence.

With respect to its broader global posture, Brazil takes pride in its identity as a global actor, in forums such as the BRICS and IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa).  Brazilian officials with whom I spoke highlighted their role in helping the United States to defend the security of the hemisphere and its maritime approaches against hostile external actors during World War II, yet are more hesitant to discuss a shared U.S.-Brazil interest in following and managing the advances of potentially threatening external actors in the hemisphere today.

Brazilians also argue that the conservative nature of the military, including its support for the struggle against communist advances in the region during the Cold War (including Brazil’s support for intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965), have historically limited Brazil-Russia military cooperation.  While Brazil has purchased 12 Mi-35 attack helicopters and several hundred Sa-24 (IGLA-S) man-portable air defense munitions, major initiatives such as the consideration of the Su-35 in Brazil’s fighter modernization effort, or the purchase of the Pantsir S-1 air defense system have not gone forward, nor have significant numbers of Brazilian military personnel studied in Russian schools.

In recent years, Brazil has, however, expanded its security relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to include sending its officers to Chinese schools, and receiving PLA students in its internationally renowned jungle warfare school in Manaus.  While the Brazilians also sent a delegation to the PRC to discuss helping it to set up its own jungle warfare school in the south of China, the initiative has reportedly not yet gone forward.  The Chinese have also been very interested in Brazil’s expertise in peacekeeping, sending a delegation to Brazil’s Peace Operations Joint Training Center (CCOPAB), and receiving a group from the institute in the PRC’s own Peacekeeping Institute in November 2017.

The role of Iran and Islamic extremists in the region is a topic in which Brazil has shown less concern than the U.S.  The nation has Latin America’s largest population of Lebanese and Syrian migrants, including its current president, Michel Temer, and a significant Lebanese community in São Paulo (although only a minority are practicing Muslims).  Brazil has also committed to accept more Syrian refugees than any other nation in Latin America (although the government has not accepted as many as it initially suggested it would).  The terrorist group Hezbollah has been identified as operating in Brazil, and is reported to have ties to the powerful First Capital Command street gang.  Threats from Islamic groups were identified and diffused during the 2016 Olympics in Rio.  Yet whereas the U.S. gives significant attention to the role of such actors as part of illicit threat networks in the region, the security implications of Islamic radicalism were generally “not on the radar screen” of the Brazilians with whom I spoke.

The challenge of transnational organized crime has given added impetus to defense of Brazil’s borders.  In responding to this challenge, Brazil has focused on a combination of security cooperation with its neighbors (e.g. sharing of border-area radar data with Colombia and Venezuela, among others) and the deployment of additional forces and technology to the border region.  Brazil’s military has legal authority to act in a law enforcement capacity in the zone within 150 kilometers of the nation’s borders, yet in practice, the inaccessibility of much of Brazil’s borderlands means that forces that can’t be used there in an effective manner.  In the Amazon region alone, Brazil’s11,000 kilometers of border are normally covered by 28 units, mostly platoon size (60-70 men), meaning that such small groups of soldiers are on average separated by almost 400 kilometers of difficult-to-traverse terrain.  The Army is developing a sensor and communication architecture, SISFRON, that will greatly multiply the effectiveness of those units and others in controlling the border region, yet due to budget limitations, implementation of the system thus far is limited to a pilot project along the frontier with Paraguay, and even that is two years behind schedule.

Supplementing such forces and systems, the Brazilian military regularly conducts exercises in the region with a law enforcement orientation. The armed forces recently restructured Operation Agata, first launched in 2011, to permit greater latitude regarding when its activities would take place, the scale, and the duration, making it more difficult for criminals to anticipate whether the Brazilian military might conduct an exercise in an area where they were operating.

In addition to Agata, Brazil recently completed the multinational exercise Amazon Log, near the triple frontier of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, in order to practice the ability of the military to coordinate logistical support with international partners in an operation conducted in such a remote area.

Beyond border operations and exercises within the country, in recent years the military has also had to deploy not only in the favelas such as MaréAlemão and Rocinha, but also in response to police strikes in Vitoria, threatened strikes in Rio de Janeiro state, and on other occasions where the situation exceeded the capabilities of state and other law enforcement.  Such operations are referred to in Brazil as “GLO,” Guarantee of Law and Order operations, emphasizing their legal basis within the framework of the 1988 constitution.  The Brazilians with whom I spoke were quick to emphasize that such engagement must be (in the words of the Constitution) “episodic.”  Although some operations such as the occupation of the Maré favela lasted more than a year, the military cannot permanently or continually replace the police in providing security to troubled areas within the country.

In general, GLO operations are not popular within the Brazilian military.  They are seen as a diversion of attention and resources away from other missions, from deploying forces to the border, to engaging in peacekeeping operations, to preparing for the traditional mission of defending the nation’s sovereignty against external threats.  Indeed, in contrast to external deployments such as Haiti, the Brazilian military generally does not recognize “GLO” operations with service ribbons or other decorations.

To some extent, Brazil’s official (and seemingly sincere) posture of friendship toward its neighbors and the region makes it difficult for the military to obtain resources to execute its responsibilities and prepare for the future, particularly during times of economic crisis and political uncertainty such as the present.  Brazilian diplomacy emphasizes that the country maintains good relations with all of its neighbors, and does not view any as an enemy.  It may express concern about the spillover effects of its neighbor’s policies, but it is careful to avoid suggesting that it regards them as a threat, or wishes to tell them how to run their country.  Yet while well received as diplomacy, the posture leads to a strange juxtaposition in which the military is forced to ask for resources for combat systems such as combat aircraft or vehicle-mounted artillery systems while its diplomats maintain that it does not view any of its neighbors as threats.


Brazil is not a country that needs U.S. help. Instead, both countries benefit from a partnership that works toward a safe, secure region and supports shared strategic interests.  There are a number of ways in which the United States can continue to strengthen its partnership with Brazil, particularly with respect to defense cooperation, while harvesting the security and other benefits that come from greater cooperation.

The United States should continue to leverage the U.S.-Brazil military-to-military relationship to serve as a vehicle to strengthen cooperation between the two nations more broadly.  Annual U.S.-Brazil Army-to-Army staff talks, for example, have been going on for 33 years.  They are an important channel, both for senior level coordination and for identifying and advancing specific cooperation activities between both institutions.   Where relationships have already been established between U.S. military organizations and their Brazilian counterparts, and with the coordination of the U.S. Security Cooperation Organization in Brasilia, those U.S. and Brazilian organizations should coordinate to identify innovative forms of cooperation to be discussed during the staff talks.

In general, Brazil’s large, sophisticated military means that many of the challenges faced by the U.S., such as conducting military transformation in times of shrinking budgets and a changing strategic environment, is an opportunity for the armed forces of both nations to learn from the errors and best practices of the other.  Similarly, Brazil’s experience in working with civilian populations in urban areas, during both peacekeeping operations and Guarantee of Law and Order operations in its territory, present important lessons for the U.S., insofar as we must work with civilian populations in our own global engagements.

The U.S. should also consider expanding billets for officials placed in Brazilian military institutions, and vice versa.  Such personnel assignments should include, but also go beyond, “liaison” officers, to include positions directly within each other’s organization, such as the professor that the Brazilian Army is sending to the U.S. Army War College Peacekeeping Institute.

The U.S. and Brazil should also continue to look for opportunities to participate in each other’s military activities, such as the successfully conducted Amazon Log exercises, in order to gain from each other’s experiences. This does not mean, however, that the Brazilian military needs the U.S. to train it, or supplement its capabilities, but rather, to aid it in its development and application of resources.

Finally, while respecting Brazil’s sovereign choice to associate with partners of its choosing, the United States similarly has the right to tell Brazil, as a member of the American family, that the U.S. ability to help it build advanced capabilities, and cooperate with it in sensitive areas such as intelligence, will be affected by the other defense relationships it, in its own right, choses to pursue.


I left Brasilia with a reinforced sense of the capabilities and professionalism of the Brazilian military, and the importance of treating Brazil with respect for the maturity of its institutions and its sovereign autonomy.  The United States has an extraordinary moment of opportunity with Brazil’s current government of Michael Temer; it is in the U.S. strategic interest to work together with Brazil, where our interests coincide, to strengthen democracy, good governance, and hemispheric security.  A prosperous, secure, well-governed Brazil is in the U.S. interest, even if our goals and political style do not always coincide.

As we strengthen our relationship with Brazil, it is also important for our Brazilian partners to understand that the partnership does not mean ceding a “sphere of influence” to Brazil with respect to South America or the Caribbean.  For our part, the U.S. should not be shocked if future Brazilian governments may take decisions regarding their relationship with extra-hemispheric actors, multilateral institutions, and political movements in the region that do not coincide with U.S. interests.  Brazil’s support for the São Paulo forum, the initiatives of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, flirtation with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and promotion of UNASUR (which excludes the U.S.) over the Organization of American States for addressing regional security issues serve as recent reminders of this fact.  Nevertheless, a strong relationship with Brazil, combined with frank and respectful interaction, is the best vehicle for ensuring that both nations can work together to advance security, democracy, and good governance in the region, even when our political paths diverge.

Evan Ellis is the Latin America Research Professor for the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.  The views expressed in this work are strictly his own. The author would like to thank LTG William Felippe Abrahão, LTG Anisio David de Oliveria Junior, MG ® Luiz Rocha Paiva, and COL Valerio Lange, among others, for their intellectual contributions to this work.

“Brazil: Between Cooperation and Deterrence,” Global Americans, December 18, 2017,