Brazil’s New Security Policies Raise Old Questions

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A new report examines aggressive attempts by Brazil’s government to secure the country’s borders by building regional alliances, the results of which have echoed the successes, failures, and regional tensions seen in US-led “war on drugs” security policies.

The underground economy in Brazil was worth an estimated $350 billion in 2012, much of which is generated by organized crime groups, according to the report “Securing the Border,” by security policy think tank the Igarape Institute. Most of this is generated within Brazil’s cities, where street gambling and drug dealing are rife and drug gangs and militias run extortion, money laundering and corruption schemes, and in the border areas, which see rampant drug trafficking, illegal extraction of timber and minerals and the smuggling of everything from cigarettes to software.

Although there are few concrete stats to plot the rise of organized crime in Brazil, experts and analysts agree that its influence is growing and that this growth is primarily fuelled by the international drug trade, states Igarape. In recent years, Brazil has grown in importance as both a cocaine consumer country, and a dispatch point for drugs headed to Europe and Africa, while criminal fragmentation and migration elsewhere has had a knock on effect on the structure of the Brazilian underworld, both in terms of homegrown criminal organizations and the presence of foreign groups.

Brazilian organized crime groups have traditionally focused on domestic markets. However, with the opening up of opportunities to participate in international drug trafficking, the two most powerful organizations, the First Capital Command (PCC), and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), are expanding abroad and looking to eliminate intermediaries in their trafficking activities, according to the report. While the PCC runs cells in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and is trying to control trafficking routes between Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil, the Red Command is reportedly more active in Paraguay.

The report states that there are also signs of the growing presence of international criminal groups. In addition to the spread of Latin American and Eastern European groups managing drugs, arms, contraband, human and eco-trafficking networks, it highlights the presence of Nigerian gangs involved in trafficking drugs to West Africa, as well as Chinese groups running contraband, bootlegging, and running extortion and protection rackets.

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The Brazilian state’s response to this has been to ramp up surveillance, eradication efforts, interdiction and seizures both inside and outside of its borders. This has seen Brazil broadly expand its international operations using what the report labels “a South American orientation” — a strategy focused on the challenges emanating from Brazil’s neighbors and the risk of their problems spreading across the border and into Brazil.

Brazil’s cooperation predominantly takes the form of bilateral or trilateral agreements signed with countries from around the region, as well as using the institutions of geo-political blocs the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur). It continues to work with regional body the Organization of American States (OAS), but has now entered into an “emptying phase,” according to the report.

Of the 25 bilateral security agreements Brazil has now signed, roughly half are with neighboring countries, a third with European or African countries and just a handful with North and Central American nations. According to the report, while it has not excluded cooperation with the United States, Mexico and Canada, nor has it actively pursued it, while it maintains low key relations with Central American and Caribbean nations.

Brazil’s relationship with the United States has been particularly ambivalent, the report notes. On the one hand, the government has made pronouncements casting doubt on the validity of US security efforts in the region, such as commenting on the US military presence in Colombia (and previously Ecuador). However, on the other hand pragmatists within both governments recognize the near inevitability of increased cooperation in the future, with the Tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, counter-terrorism activities, and links between South American and African organized crime the likely focuses.

Instead, the mainstay of its security policies has been the agreements struck with South American countries, the report states. Over the last two years, it has entered security deals with Peru, where much of the country’s cocaine originates, and Paraguay, which is a major source of marijuana and a contraband smuggling hotspot. The agreements allow Brazilian security forces to conduct cross-border operations to destroy coca and marijuana crops. Brazil is hoping these deals will be expanded to Colombia and Bolivia, according to Igarape.

Agreements are already in place with both countries but security issues have been a source of tension. Within Brazil, concerns are growing that Bolivia could emerge as a “narco-state” due to government backed legal coca cultivation, while there are also worries that Colombia’s security efforts are displacing its problems with drug trafficking and guerrillas into Brazil’s Amazon border region.

Brazil’s regional efforts have also provoked apprehension among these allies. The report notes how Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela have all expressed concern that Brazilian military operations in the Amazon region could infringe on their sovereignty, and how relations with Bolivia in particular have become strained.

The report concludes that Brazil’s regional security policies are somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, it frames its policies in the language of solidarity, a “partnership of equals,” and “south-south cooperation” to fill the gap left by the ever less visible United States. On the other, it is keen to project its power as a regional leader, causing tensions with its neighbors. Nevertheless, the result of these alliances has been massive increases in drug and contraband seizures, suggesting they are to some extent successful. However, it notes, whether more drugs captured means genuine security improvements, is another issue.

InSight Crime Analysis

In many ways Brazil has been something of a sleeping giant when it comes to organized crime. It is the region’s largest and most populated country, and an economic powerhouse, but also suffers rampant corruption, and deeply ingrained poverty and inequality, creating fertile conditions for organized crime to take root and prosper. To some extent, this sleeping giant seems to be waking, prompted by changes in cocaine consumption patterns and export routes, which have made Brazil an increasingly important location for the drugs trade.

The response from Brazil has been to attempt to assume a regional leadership role, which not only helps expand its reach on security issues, but also tallies with its broader desire for recognition as a global political leader to match its newfound economic power. However, this has created the same sort of issues faced by the country it is in part trying to replace as the main player in South American security — the United States.

Although Brazil is much more narrowly focused on its immediate neighbors compared to the United States’ broader net of influence, there are several similarities to the nature of the relationships the two countries have forged with their allies. Brazil is capable of providing much needed funds to severely under-resourced neighbors, perhaps more so than any other country in South America. However, as with the United States, this has led to tensions, with concerns over the one-sided nature of the relationship fuelled not only by Brazil’s aggressive cross-border military operations but also by its commitment to stubbornly prohibitionist policies at a time when much of the region is moving towards a new drugs paradigm.

The comparison to the United States is also likely to bear out in the results of Brazil’s security polices, as it has so far, where heavy investment has led to impressive increases in interdictions and arrests but made little discernible impact on the global drugs trade and spread of organized crime.

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