Defense Research in a Shifting Security Environment

Posted July 26 by Colette Perold — PhD Student in NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication

AMA_ACE_6928_87_0001; Arquivo Nacional

On May 18, Brazil’s interim Foreign Relations Minister José Serra used his inaugural address to lay out Brazil’s new foreign policy plan, a ten-point schema that resisted an easy close, to the surprise of many: “But if I had to add one more,” he said, “I would name one that we have to act on…the protection of our borders.” He argued that Brazil’s landed borders are where Brazil’s organized criminal networks develop, where arms and goods smuggling meet drug trafficking, harming the Brazilian people and Brazil’s economy.

A week later, on May 25, the interim government announced the creation of an Executive Committee of Border Coordination and Control, composed of the ministries of defense, justice, and international relations, with support from at least twenty agencies, including the federal police, the federal reserve, the intelligence agency (ABIN), and the armed forces. Interim Defense Minister Raul Jungmann announced the committee would bring an additional 15,000 troops to the border, with additional arms and resources, at a total projected cost of R$9 billion.

On July 8, interim Minister of Justice Alexandre de Moraes announced in an interview with news outlet Istoé that the ministry would be augmenting the size of Brazil’s National Force from 1,500 troops to 15,000, and—once the Olympics are over—focusing their work also on Brazil’s landed borders.

And before these new border policy announcements, yet still within the purview of the interim government, the armed forces published its explanatory memorandum on May 5 on the extension of Programa Calha Norte, or the Northern Watershed Program, to the southern states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. Programa Calha Norte was the Brazilian military’s first major infrastructural project under civilian rule, drafted just months into the democratic transition in 1985. It has been steadily growing in scope since. It installed military camps, transportation routes, and mineral mines throughout the Amazon along the border with Venezuela. A project of the National Security Council, its early planning drafts cite threats of drug trafficking and guerrilla movements throughout the Amazon borderlands, and the need for the economic development of otherwise unproductive indigenous land.

The photo at the top of this post is of a 9-page internal document, dated March 1987, with a catalogue of initial responses to Calha Norte. I came across it at Rio’s National Archive, part of a collection released through Brazil’s Truth Commission. Responses in the document range from a church charging Calha Norte with provoking genocide on Waimiri-Atroari indigenous land, to ex-President Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva preparing to “denounce” the project “nationally” on behalf of the Workers Party. At the time of the document’s publication, the Workers Party was the only party to officially do so. The photo below is of a Calha Norte planning document from the same collection.

BR_RJANRIO_H4_0_AGA_DI075300_91_d0001de0001; Arquivo Nacional

The supposed roll-out of enhanced border programming on behalf of Brazil’s interim government comes amid high-profile news stories that feature the border prominently: A Guantanamo detainee accepted by the Uruguayan government in December 2014 apparently missing by the border city Chuy in early July; the theatrical capture and assassination of drug trafficker “Border King” Jorge Rafaat Toumani on the Brazil-Paraguay border in late June; Jungmann’s visit to Mato Grasso to check on the border military action Operation Ágata, now in its 11th incarnation; government appearances in international media assuring Brazil’s borders will be protected from terrorist threats throughout the Olympics. While the press spectacles might be explained by a nod to international actors—press, government officials, security agencies, consumers, tourists—eased by the familiarity of border security lingo around this August’s international media spectacle, the earlier border plans, rolled out nearly back-to-back in the middle of a recession, beg the question of why border enforcement has become central policy for Brazil’s interim government.

I’ll pause here to reflect on what it means to do security research in a rapidly shifting defense climate. I’m an early PhD student, in Brazil for preliminary dissertation research. I’m working on a project whose initial research questions have been sparked by an interest in Brazilian border security as the Brazilian government has poured increased resources into border monitoring since the early 2000s. Brazil’s 10,500-mile landed border is roughly five times the size of the US-Mexico border, with ten neighboring states. Sixty percent runs through the Amazon forest. If efforts to secure the US-Mexico border have proven futile time and again, the more recent infrastructural efforts to monitor the Brazilian borders open a range of significant questions about the history and structure of the state’s security apparatus. Now, as the fate of the government remains, thankfully, open at best, and in ambiguous transition at worst, its defense policy is an open question, making security research a challenge.

But a welcome one. Conversations remain speculative, and interviews, often off the record. Researchers are sitting on documents they have spent years producing but whose publication dates are unknown. Academic, research, and government careers can be equally uncertain. It has been a rich first few week of research for me, but part of the work involves stepping back to take stock of what it means to do research in an area where the “experts” themselves are almost as humbled by what they don’t know as the new initiates. With the likelihood of Dilma’s non-impeachment ever more a possibility, it can be hard to know what the interim government’s priorities are—who is doing the planning, who is speaking on behalf of whom, which officials will stay or go, if there is staying to be had.

While Brazil’s ostensible border build-up may be shifting in tone and expectation, it has, however, been a long time in the making—marking a sharp turn from Lula’s 1987 denouncement of Calha Norte. As foreign relations expert Matias Spektor notes in his July 14 Folha de São Paulo column, the Executive Committee of Border Coordination and Control was created in response to devastating TCU reports in September of 2015 on Dilma’s 2011 Strategic Border Plan (PEF) and in March 2016 on the Integrated Border Monitoring System (SISFRON) (now largely underfunded, and selling itself to individual state governments).

Calha Norte’s southern extension had been forecast toward the end of 2015. The Ágata operations are part of the PEF. SISFRON in many ways emerges from SIVAM, the Amazon Vigilance Surveillance System launched in 2002, and works with ENAFRON, the National Strategy for Public Security at the Borders, also established in 2011. Several experts argue that the more recent politicization of the border began right around when Lula took office. The hypotheses abound: a way to divert attention from crime and drug trafficking in urban areas to the nation’s peripheries; the growing role of border studies in Brazilian social science research; the growing emphasis on regional integration; the transnational reverberations of post-9/11 border security crackdowns. These latter questions, certainly, the bulk of matter, and for future posts. For now, a note to take stock.


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