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20 July 2015

“Strong Arm, Friendly Hand” – The Brazilian Army in the Amazon

Almost 400 years ago, Captain Pedro Teixeira’s “Bronze Guns and Iron Men” made an epic voyage of exploration along the Amazon, as far as modern day Quito in Ecuador. Since then, and as the modern state of Brazil has evolved and grown, the issue of protecting and preserving the largest river basin in the world has continued to attract serious attention.

Patrolling in a jungle environment
Brazil’s care of the Amazon, from a strategic perspective, is entrusted to the Comando Militar de Amazonia (CMA – or Amazon Military Command.) The task it faces is a considerable one. The Amazon basin has a surface area in excess of seven million square kilometres (of which 5.2 million lie within Brazil proper), occupies two fifths of the entire area of South America and one twentieth of the world’s surface, as well as containing one fifth of the world’s fresh water and one third of all its forests. Security challenges include the necessity to counter significant incidents of illegal logging, fishing and mining as well as transborder issues of immigration, narcotics trafficking and terrorism.
To counter these challenges, CMA has just 17,000 men, organised into four Jungle Infantry Brigades and supporting units, including fire support, aviation support, intelligence and logistics. Since the command was split into CMA and CMN (Comando Militar de Norte) in May 2013, those 17,000 troops admittedly now ‘only’ have the Western Amazon to police (CMN now having some 9,000 to cope with the Eastern Amazon region) but that is still a massive task. To put it in perspective, the CMA AoR equates roughly to an area greater than France, Germany, the Low Countries, the Iberian Peninsula and Italy – combined!

Jungle warriors learn to collect and preserve water by any means possible during their training.
Exacerbating the problem is the transport issue. Some of the major cities in the area are inaccessible by road and can only be reached by air or water. “In the Amazon, rivers are our roads and highways,” said Major Antoine of the CMA headquarters staff in a briefing to journalists in Manaus in July.
One of the lasting impressions from a visit to CMA is the extent to which the Brazilian Army is an integrated part of the community – not merely a uniformed arm of government. As well as its security tasks, CMA’s contribution to the region includes helping to provide some of the basic needs of the 22 million inhabitants – food, water, sanitation and energy. Indeed, according to the Commander of CMA, Army General Guilherme Theophilo, the fundamental tasks of his command are to “Promote integration, to provide education, to provide health and to prevent and suppress environmental and transborder crime.” The order in which those priorities are stated is, perhaps, a telling indicator of the seriousness with which CMA pursues its ‘non-military aims.’ Later in this series of blogs, at another Brazilian Army command visited in July, evidence that this philosophy extends right across the nation will be revealed.

The strategies adopted by CMA in dealing with its substantive issues break down into four main policies: Presence, Resistance, Deterrence and Cooperation.

The strategy of presence is seen in the deployment of the command’s Special Border Platoons or PEF. There are some 24 of these currently, each about 50 strong and commanded by a Lieutenant or, more often, a Captain. As Major Antoine explains “the PEF commanders need a certain level of maturity since they will often be in a position requiring independent decision-making.” Which is hardly surprising, given their deployment to remote border areas is normally a year in length – with the result that some of these are accompanied tours, with families joining their spouses in relatively Spartan living conditions for the duration. A former PEF commander, retired Colonel Paulo Eduardo Ribeiro, pointed out that “the PEF role is a critically important one to ensure the objectives the government has for the Amazon region are met.”

Resistance is visible in the training jungle warriors receive at the Jungle Warfare Training School (see separate blog “Jungle Warriors in the Making.”) Learning to survive and operate in a potentially hostile environment in which temperature, disease, predators and finding sufficient food and water are all challenges is a key component in what makes the PEFs and the Jungle Infantry Brigades effective.

Deterrence also stems from the training CMA’s troops undergo. Knowledge that there are PEFs patrolling the border areas –and other troops regularly visiting the sites of potential illegal activities – has a huge deterrent effect on would-be hostile elements.
The strategy of cooperation, however, provides the stronge
st evidence of CMA’s integrated activities and its commitment to regional security. Investment in new key assets – such as the LPR-40 riverine craft recently purchased from Colombia – and active cooperation with the security forces of neighbouring countries – on both sides of their respective borders – shows that the army is leveraging all of its facilities, despite severe budget pressures, to accomplishing well defined strategic objectives.

Treated with respect and from a background of knowledge, the jungle can provide a wide variety of sustenance.
Like the rest of the Brazilian Army, CMA is in the middle of a period of transformation. The most obvious of these will be the creation of a fifth Jungle Infantry Brigade, adding at least a further 2,000 jungle-trained troops to the command’s ORBAT. Also of key importance will be the significant expansion of the PEF Special Border Platoons, which will increase from the current 24 to 50, highlighting the critical role these small but important units play in the overall strategy.

In my experience, visits to major military commands often focus on the purely military role played by the participants in the briefing. After a brief but fascinating exposure to the Amazon Military Command, I am left with the impression we have been shown not just the command’s military capabilities, but also the serious nature of its commitment to being an integral part of developing one of the world’s most precious resources – the command’s ‘heart,’ if you will. And that is perhaps best summed up in the words of General Theophilo. “To serve in the Amazon is a privilege. To fight for its sustainable development is an obligation.”
Tim Mahon, reporting from Manaus, State of Amazonas, Brazil

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