Brazil is conducting a major military operation in its southern borders. Named Ágata 5 (not to be confused with Operation Agatha), this is the fifth such operation since the beginning of last year, part of a new systematic effort from the Brazilian government to enhance border control, fight illicit activities and improve the overall reach of the state in these border areas. The operation is impressive, not only for its size and scope but also for what it represents.
Let’s start with the numbers. The over 10,000-strong (9,000 uniformed, 1,000 civilians) effort comprises all three Armed Forces and 30 civilian agencies and will last nearly 30 days, being the largest of its kind in Brazil and among the largest ever conducted in South America. It features Urutu and Cascavel armored cars, infantry units, UAVs, F5 fighter jets, Super Tucanos, helicopters and 30 ships (war ships and patrol ships) in a concerted effort to interdict traffickers by sea, land and air in the 3.9 thousand kilometers of borders with Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. But, interestingly, it also includes a hospital ship and medical personnel tasked with “civil-social actions” for local populations (ACISO, in Portuguese): they expect to perform 19,000 medical and 21,000 odontological consultations in the course of the operation.
Operation Ágata in all its instalments is a landmark for three reasons. First, it is the first real effort Brazil has made to assume a role in regional security commensurate with its size and ambitions. After decades of neglect and denial, Brazil seems to be slowly coming to grips with the international and domestic threats posed by these “ungoverned spaces“. Without serious improvement in border control and monitoring, no amount of “pacification” in the favelas (Brazil’s other ungoverned spaces) will do the trick, and unless Brazil shoulders the costs of actual engagement, calls for regional security cooperation will likely amount to little more than words.
Second, it marks a shift in Brazil’s stance of the use of military personnel for border security and, especially, counter-narcotics operations. The military – and many civilian defense “experts” – have long opposed taking on these tasks for fear that it would divert precious resources from they think is the “real” mission of fighting Brazil’s enemies (hypothetical great powers that might want to poach Brazil’s natural riches). They also worry that exposing troops to criminal activities will invite corruption into their ranks. These and other objections are still very common in Brazil, but that notwithstanding, Operation Ágata indicates that tasks are now a major priority in Brazil’s defense and security policy, which bodes well for civilian control of the military. The fact that the operation is being conducted by the Ministry of Defense and, specifically, the newly-created Joint Chief of Staff (EMCFA, in Portuguese), is also a plus for interoperability – mitigating the traditional competition between the three branches – and civilian control.
Third, in planning and conducting the operations Brazil has made an explicit effort of informing and coordinating with other South American countries, so as to allay fears of “Brazilian imperialism”. This is particularly relevant because Brazil has been consistently unwilling or unable to acknowledge the possibility that its newfound economic and political weight, as well as new defense plans (see here, in Portuguese), may be threatening to its neighbors (a lack of what Booth and Wheeler call “security dilemma sensibility“). These efforts are welcome, but unlikely to be sufficient. Inviting officers from neighboring countries as observers does not necessarily eliminate misgivings, as Brazil should well know from its long history of reluctant participation in US DEA/Southcom missions in Latin America. Not surprisingly, some in Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia have reacted negatively to the operation, worried that Brazil’s actions indicate that the country is growing more inclined toward using force in regional affairs. This is especially worrisome for countries that have, in the past couple of months, stepped on the toes of their giant neighbor.
Overall, Operation Ágata is a positive development that should be welcomed by advocates of a more rational defense policy and of greater Brazilian engagement in regional security affairs, even as it presents Brazil with the challenge of offering assurances and voice opportunities to its neighbors to prevent further blowback. To the extent that this is the flip side of recent efforts at combating urban violence and criminality, there is one crucial ingredient missing: demand. And herein lies the greatest challenge. If Brazil fails to move on drug law reform and focuses its effort too much on policing and combating, it runs the risk of getting bogged down in its own endless war on drugs.
*Post co-authored with Daniel Rio Tinto