Brazil Comes to the Fore in Regional Security

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Brazil, which borders on the world’s three biggest cocaine producers, is increasingly moving to make itself a key force in regional anti-drug efforts, funneling security aid to its neighbors in a drive to cut growing drug use at home.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon visited Brazil last week to meet his Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim and discuss the progression of the Binational Border Security Plan (PBSF) signed between the two in June last year. The countries agreed to formulate an effective strategy to counter drug-trafficking, money laundering, human trafficking and terrorism.

The agreement is but one of many bilateral border security agreements made, and largely dictated, by Brazil over the last 12 months with its drug-producing neighbors.

Bolivia signed a similar agreement with the regional giant in 2011, and has received four helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) to fight coca cultivation. Paraguay, whose border with Brazil sees the transit of up to 40 tons of cocaine per year and 15 per cent of the world’s marijuana, also followed suit, while a similar security initiative is pending with Peru.

President Dilma Rousseff has committed $6.3 billion to a crackdown on border security over the next eight years, along with further funding annouced in December. This program has already seen results, with 62 tons of narcotics seized and 3,000 arrests in its first four months to October, and was bolstered by the sending of a further 6,500 troops to the borders in November.

The first major sign politically that Brazil is looking to make its presence felt in issues of regional security can be traced to the signing of the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with the US in April 2010, a treaty that aims to boost intelligence sharing and joint military training exercises between the two countries. This marked a shift from Brazil’s previous opposition to US involvement in the region, expressed most strongly by its stance against the Colombia-US security pact in 2009 that would have given the US access to seven Colombian military bases.

Brazil’s protest over the US-Colombia pact, and subsequent signing of its own more modest one, showed that it expects to be able to dictate security issues in the region, or, at the very least, be consulted by Washington beforehand, as Peter Hakim noted in the Foreign Service Journal.

This influence is by no means confined to the political. In conjunction with the rise in its military spending, Brazil has become both a major buyer of military equipment in South America and one of the key vendors to its smaller neighbors.

In 2009, Brazil began negotiations for the purchase of 36 French fighter aircraft at a cost of $2-$4 billion and announced that it was entering a joint venture with with France for the building of submarines and helicopters. It also has a deal in place with Israeli Aerospace industries to buy 14 Heron drones by 2014 for $395 million.

The corollary of this move to advance and invest in its military capabilities meant Brazil began selling off surplus equipment. Land vehicles and Super Tucano aircraft were sold to Bolivia in 2009 along with 24 warplanes to Ecuador. Colombia has also been a customer for Tucano aircraft and is currently participating in a new Brazilian tanker/transport aircraft according to Defense Minister Amorim.

An underlying force behind Brazil’s moves to put itself at the forefront of regional security efforts is domestic concerns about drug consumption. This has been on the rise in recent years, with cheaper cocaine derivatives more widely available. Seizures of crack cocaine in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, more than doubled between 2006 and 2009. Last year’s World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that Brazil now accounts for one third of cocaine use in Latin America and the Caribbean. The scene is rapidly evolving, with the increasing use of a more powerful, and cheaper, cocaine derivative named “oxi,” which was previously found mostly in small towns in the Amazon.

Violence has also risen in rural areas beset by drug addiction as the Brazilian state focuses its attention on securing its major cities ahead of both the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil is not a drug producing nation, and so to try to attack this it has to go to its neighbors Peru, Colombia and Bolivia — the three largest cocaine producers in the world.

An additional impetus driving Rousseff’s security push is the presence of Brazilian gangs in neighboring countries, mainly the First Capital Command (PCC) and the Red Command in Paraguay and their emissaries in Bolivia. Though neither have effectively set up transnational operations to the degree of Colombian or Mexican drug gangs, the Brazilian state needs to track their presence as they become increasingly involved in the cross-border flows of narcotics into Brazil.

Having emerged as an influential force in regional security, Brazil could be on course to follow the type of interdiction model historically set by the US. Indeed, perhaps unlike the US, it appears to have recognized the need to treat the problem of domestic drug consumption with the announcement by Rousseff in December of a new initiative that will see the government spend a portion of $2 billion on treating addicts. However, the overwhelming majority of government funding remains reserved for the military side of anti-drug operations.

Although the government announced last year that it plans to cut its defense budget by $2.4 billion, it seems unlikely that this will affect Brazil’s anti-trafficking operations or the military aid to its neighbors, given the finalization of a trilateral agreement this week to increase technical cooperation between Brazil, Bolivia and the US in counter-narcotics efforts.

As Brazil’s economy continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace, along with the drug consumption inside its borders, we can expect to see it continue asserting its influence in regional security.

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