Brazil has one of the largest land borders in the world – at 10,492 miles long it flanks 10 nations. Earlier this month this vast frontier became the focus of the biggest military operation in the history of the country.
The impetus behind this marshaling of the armed forces was the start of the Confederations Cup, currently underway in soccer stadiums across Brazil, and seen as the curtain-raiser for the string of upcoming mega-events including the Pope’s visit next month, the World Cup next year, and the 2016 Olympics.
Before the games began, Brazil had a major security headache: How to prevent the drugs, guns, and explosives that are regularly trafficked through its porous borders from making it into the cities, past the security of the FIFA games, and into the hands of spectators during a high profile and internationally sensitive period.
To tackle these concerns, the ministry of defense took the unprecedented step of sending 33,500 troops to Brazil’s extensive border for three weeks, with instructions to combat transnational crime through joint-patrols on land, by sea, and by air.
“We deliberately staged Operation Agatha just before the Confederations Cup because we knew that with a big event coming up there would be a significant increase in illicit activities throughout our border,” says Gen. José Carlos De Nardi, Brazil’s chief of staff of the armed forces. “The military action immediately before the games was aimed at ensuring that many of these illegal acts could not, in any way, interfere with the event,” De Nardi says. The international soccer tournament will draw to a close this weekend.
The focus on border patrol, of course, was before Brazil’s large-scale protests swept the country. Sparked by a rise in bus fare hikes, but capitalizing on the international media attention that accompanied the Confederations Cup, Brazilians have taken to the streets in cities large and small to voice other political, social, and economic grievances. Some demonstrations have resulted in violence.
On the back of the border mission’s launch, Brazil’s Defense Minister Celso Amorim sanctioned the use of military drones during the opening of the Confederations Cup in Brasilia on June 15 and over Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium during the final game on June 30.
While the military has restricted its use to these two days, the police have been using their drones above Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to monitor the civil demonstrations that erupted there over the last two weeks. Brazil has only recently started using drones with the military now flying four and the federal police operating two.
Ironically it has been the Brazilian citizens who have caused the most disruption to the tournament forcing the authorities to strengthen the policing around the stadiums at the last minute in order to secure the arenas and fans before the matches.
“We were prepared for them and we had effective measures to implement when it was necessary,” said the director of operations for security of major events, José Monteiro. “The demonstrations were a component that was already incorporated into our planning.
“However, throughout the protests we always had the primary goal of ensuring people had the right to demonstrate and the right to voice their views in public. This is enshrined in our constitution," Mr. Monteiro said.
From May 18 to June 5, army battalions, platoons, and fleets performed hundreds of thousands of missions as part of Operation Agatha – costing a grand total of $20 million. This included deploying drones, boats, overland vehicles, and aircraft.
The border exercises, which were discussed with Brazil’s neighbors prior to taking place, included navy frigates patrolling 5,917 miles of rivers, lakes, and canals as moving checkpoints. The boats traveled from the north in the dense jungle rainforest of the Amazon down to the urbanized south in Parana, and resulted in a total of 17,587 boats being inspected along with their cargo and passengers.
Army road checkpoints were also set up in strategic locations along the Brazilian border. Although it proved logistically impossible to cover every inch of this complex landscape, the checkpoints were extensive with some 267,590 vehicles and motorbikes inspected and over 17,000 pedestrians being stopped and searched as they crossed the invisible boundary lines into Brazil.
Drugs and weapons
Up to 90 percent of the narcotics entering the world market are trafficked into Brazil from Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia, according to Brazil’s ministry of defense. Much of it is consumed by Brazil’s growing middle class, which uses 18 percent of the yearly world supply of cocaine, according to 2012 United Nations data. This makes Brazil one of the highest drug-using countries, second only to the United States.
Back on the border, Operation Agatha ended its campaign with a record haul of narcotics. Over 25,300 tons of cannabis and 1,448 lbs of cocaine, crack, and hashish were seized.
In the last few hours of Operation Agatha, the Brazilian Army seized 4.9 tons of explosives as it was being trafficked into the country from Paraguay. According the military the dynamite would have likely been sent north to the Amazon and used to extract gold in the remote areas of the jungle by illegal miners.
But nothing has been left to chance. Although Brazil has never been targeted by international terrorism the military set up a specially trained counter-terrorism force of 600 soldiers and stationed them in the six cities hosting the Confederations Cup. An additional 250 officers have been primed to handle chemical, bacteriological, and nuclear attacks.
Speaking before the FIFA games started in an interview with the government broadcasting agency, Agência Brasil, director general of Brazil’s intelligence agency (ABIN), Wilson Trezza, said: “Terrorism can happen at any stage. There will be a lot of spectators here during the Confederations Cup from different countries that have a history of conflict and have terrorist organizations. So far we have no indication that any terrorist act is being planned in Brazil, but we know it is easier to hit enemy targets outside of their home countries.”
Operation Agatha proved a successful campaign for Brazil’s military, and army officers are probably polishing their collars. However, they are fully aware that they will need to stage an even grander military exercise, next year, before the World Cup.