For the love of sport: Brazil’s $20 million military mission to clean up borders

If the world is watching, Brazil must be more than prepared

On the River Javari, coursing deep inside Brazil’s Amazonian jungle, the only sound disturbing the silence in the pitch black darkness of the night is the putter of a river boat’s motor.

This 400-metre wide tributary flows into the Amazon River and forms a natural frontier between Brazil on one side and Peru on the other. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a spotlight pierces the moonless night and the scream of a siren is accompanied by the roar of powerful engines, signalling the approach of two heavily armed patrol boats – one a gun boat loaded with Brazilian soldiers, the other packed with Brazilian federal police – rushing towards the occupants of the small river vessel.

The officers swarms the small private boat, uncovering 30kg of cocaine hidden in a concealed compartment in the bottom of the craft. The boat is subsequently sunk by the military, and the two Colombians on board arrested.

This is just one of hundreds of thousands of land, sea and air missions undertaken as part of Operation Agatha – the latest instalment of which is a vast 19-day military exercise involving some 33,500 troops patrolling a 10,492 mile-long  stretch of Brazil’s land border. But Brazil is not at war.

This mission – the largest peacetime deployment of military personnel in the country’s history – is just part of the country’s far-reaching preparations to secure its borders as it prepares to host a string of international sporting events over the next three years, beginning with FIFA Confederation Cup today.

Starting with the opening match between Brazil and Japan in Rio de Janeiro today, the Confederation Cup is not only seen as a trial run for Brazil’s hosting of the football World Cup in 2014 – it is also the country’s first chance to show what the world can expect from the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Security is a major concern for any host nation – and Brazil is taking its obligations very seriously. This latest, and largest, mission for Operation Agatha cost $20m and forms part of Brazil’s Strategic Border Plan to tackle the country’s endemic levels of violence related to the trafficking of drugs, arms, and people, along the land border it holds with 10 other nations. 

“Our objective was to stamp our authority on our border as a no man’s land for contraband activities,” General José Carlos De Nardi, Brazil’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, told The Independent.

“Operation Agatha’s focus is about the protection of our people, which benefits our country as a whole. It is also about building good relationships with our neighbours as we help to protect their citizens as well.”

Before Oper-ation Agatha was launched in 2011, diplomatic teams from Brazil visited the 10 border nations to reassure them the manoeuvres were not a show of strength and had no hostile or covert intentions.

The scale of the latest mission, conducted from 18 May until 5 June, was one of the key challenges for planners. The Brazilian army, air force and navy patrolled an area covering 27 per cent of the country, made up of 4,575 miles of dry land; 5,917 miles of rivers, lakes and canals and 14,549 miles of motorways. It was the first time Brazil’s three military wings have operated jointly under one national command and deployed hundreds of military vehicles, aircraft, vessels and equipment simultaneously. Battalions, platoons and fleets from the Amazon in the north right down to the State of Parana in the South shared and coordinated intelligence, integrated resources and executed joint missions, and thousands of Brazil’s federal police officers also took part. The operation had a direct impact on over six million Brazilians and involved 11 States incorporating 710 cities and towns.

The area to cover was so vast, planners had intended to deploy 25,000 troops but were later forced to revise that number upwards to 33,563.

“We had some logistical problems because we simply underestimated how big the area is,” admitted General De Nardi. “For example in the Amazon, we found we needed more transportation support with airplanes to take our troops. With more aircraft operating, we had to bring in extra people for equipment maintenance and to help on the runways.”

The carabao, otherwise known as water buffalo, have also been drafted in by the army to navigate the difficult jungle terrain because of their ability to carry 500kg plus a soldier.

Back in Tabatinga, roughly 120 miles away from where the Colombians had been found with 30kg cocaine on the River Javari, an army check point is controlling the flow of traffic along a main road. This Brazilian Amazonian rainforest city sits on the triple border between Columbia and Peru. Dozens of soldiers, carrying assault rifles, search motorbikes and cars, and frisk individuals as they cross the invisible frontier line. The town of 52,000 residents is a nexus of transnational activity – a perfect corridor for smuggling from Leticia, Tabatinga’s sister city across the Colombian border, into Brazil.

Another route takes goods across the Solimões River, running between Tabatinga and the Peruvian border Island of Santa Rosa. According to research from Brazil’s Ministry of Defence, about 42 per cent of the world’s cocaine is produced in Peru, 38 per cent in Columbia and 20 per cent in Bolivia.

It is not only the movement of illicit goods Brazil must contend with. In the small city of Brasiléia in the state of Acre, 1,600 miles from Porto Velho, the frontier town of 35,000 residents on the border of Bolivia is struggling to cope with a recent surge in illegal immigration. In the last three months more than 1,500 Haitians have been trafficked into Brazil. Many have paid ‘coyotes’ upwards of $3,000 to take them from Port au Prince to the Dominican Republic over to Panama, Ecuador and Peru then into Brazil through hazardous Amazonian jungle terrain.

For the last few weeks the concentrated presence of the military on its extensive frontier has made it harder in places for people to enter illegally. But the challenge of monitoring Brazil’s porous land border remains. Critics warn of the risks of extremists entering the country through undetected routes and hiding out in border towns. Their concerns, some say, are justified.

Although Brazil has never been the target of international terrorism, it has been forced to consider itself as a target as it prepares to host its major international sporting events. Leaked government reports claim that around two dozen extremists connected to Al-Qa’ida, Hezbollah and Hamas are already living in Brazil, mainly in the tri-border southern state of Parana, where the Iguassu Falls roars across Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. They are said to be using the country to raise money, build support or plan attacks. Curitiba, the capital of Parana, is meant to be the hub of their operations which for years has attracted large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East of Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian descent.

Last month Hamze Ahmad Barakat, a Lebanese businessman and naturalised Brazilian, living in Curitiba for over 20 years, was accused by US intelligence of using his clothing businesses, situated across the border in Paraguay, to support the extremist group Hezbollah. The Americans claimed Barakat, 50, had been trafficking arms, drugs, explosives and counterfeit money. The Brazilian’s have said the terrorism allegations are unsubstantiated, but have charged him with embezzlement, fraud and creating false documents.

Terrorism remains a touchy and unresolved subject in Brazil – the country does not have a specific law for fighting terrorism, and there is no legislation which fully defines extremist activities. Several bills attempting to introduce clarity have failed to gain ground.

“Officially, Brazil does not have terrorism inside its borders,” Lisa Kubiske, the then US deputy chief of mission in Brasilia, wrote in an August 2009 cable later released by WikiLeaks. “In reality, several Islamic groups with known or suspected ties to extremist organisations have branches in Brazil and are suspected of carrying out financing activities.”

Several countries in Latin America – including Brazil – resist anti-terror legislation because memories of state dictatorships, which killed or spirited away thousands of political opponents in the 1970s and 80s and were often designated terror groups, are still fresh.

However, the latest mission for Operation Agatha has seen the Brazilian air force and the Federal Police both use drones in the first joint action of its kind to scour the border between Parana and Paraguay for criminal activity. Both branches remain tight-lipped about the results of the exercise, but some have seen it as a sign that new steps to tackle terror activities are finally being taken.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence has declared Operation Agatha a resounding success. A total of 25,342 tons of marijuana and 657 kg of cocaine, crack cocaine and hashish were seized. In Tabatinga the patrolling of the Javari River has helped to neutralise the harvest of coca in Peru. The soldiers may be polishing their collars right now, but the true tests of Brazil’s security might are yet to come.

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