Latest Battleground in Latin Drug War: Brazilian Amazon

New York Times, 30 Oct. 2000

Tabatinga, Brazil.

Until recently, this town on the corner of the frontiers of Brazil, Peru and Colombia was one of the most sleepy, remote and overlooked parts of the Amazon. But that was before the fighting upriver by army troops, guerrillas and paramilitary forces on Colombia's side of the 1,021-mile border started to intensify.

Suddenly, the Brazilian government is stepping up river patrols and air surveillance and destroying clandestine airstrips, driven by a concern that the $1.3 billion the United States has promised Colombia to bolster its army may further fuel the long war against drug traffickers and their guerrilla allies and send it spilling into Brazil.

"We know that once the gringos have strengthened the army's hand there, we may get whacked too," said Mauro Sposito, head of the new Brazilian force here. "So this operation was undertaken as a preventive measure, in anticipation of whatever problems may come our way."

Although a modest effort, the new Brazilian campaign is only the most visible sign that a full-scale militarization of the Amazon and beyond is underway as Colombia's war threatens to draw in its neighbors. From Panama to Bolivia, governments and armies are girding for the worst by strengthening their defense forces in every way they can.

The operation, involving 180 police officers, 18 patrol boats, 2 airplanes and a helicopter, is part of Brazil's expanding attempt to steel itself against the spillover effects already being felt in the region. Refugees fleeing the violence in Colombia have been crossing borders, and guerrilla forces who work in symbiosis with drug traffickers are increasingly coming to see neighboring countries as safe bases and supply areas.

The larger fear is that the problems will only deepen with the American-financed program to aid Colombia's army, a force with a lackluster record on human rights and in the battlefield.

Peru and Venezuela have stepped up troop deployments along their borders with Colombia. And Ecuador, by far the weakest country in the area, has said it will seek an aid package of its own from Washington. But it is Brazil that has sovereignty over the largest and most vulnerable piece of the world's biggest jungle, and it is Brazil that is now engaged in the most ambitious, extensive and costly effort to occupy and defend its sparsely populated frontiers.

For Latin America's largest country that focus marks a historic shift in priorities. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Brazil was focused on its southern border with Argentina, where the biggest concentrations of troops and military equipment have always been deployed, and largely neglected its northern borders.

The key to the beefed-up Brazilian effort in the Amazon, which accounts for 60 percent of the country's territory, is a $1.4 billion radar project called the Amazon Vigilance System, known as Sivam, from its acronym in Portuguese.

The American-financed system, which consists of 19 fixed and 6 mobile radar posts, was begun in 1997 to monitor deforestation, fires and illegal mining. But it has taken on great military significance with the deteriorating situation in Colombia, and is now considered a vital tool by both Brazilian and American officials to track the movements of guerrilla and drug operations, which often use small private aircraft.

"We have all of Brazilian airspace controlled, except for the Amazon," Gen. Alberto Cardoso, the government's national security minister, explained in an interview in Brasília early this month. "Now, the Sivam project is going to fill that void and permit us to defend our territory." In mid-October, Brazil offered to share data gathered from Sivam with neighbors and the United States. "With Sivam and our own electronic intelligence gathering capacity, I expect to see us working together and sharing information in an unprecedented fashion so that we can each benefit from what we know and need to know about drug trafficking activity," the American Ambassador to Brazil, Anthony S. Harrington, said in a recent interview.

In 1998, the Brazilian Congress approved legislation that would allow the Air Force to shoot down any aircraft that enters Brazilian airspace illegally. Peru and Colombia have similar laws, but "ours is broader," General Cardoso said, and "has to be regulated by a decree that is still being discussed, due to the sensitivity of the problem," before it can be put into effect.

As part of its effort to control the sky over the often impenetrable jungle, the Brazilian government has also announced that it intends to spend about $3.5 billion during the next eight years to buy new supersonic fighter planes and transport planes. It will also refurbish 100 combat jets.

The buildup is intended to remedy a vulnerability that Brazil was reminded of last year, when a plane on its way from neighboring Suriname made an emergency landing in the eastern Amazon state of Pará. An inspection revealed a cargo of arms, which Brazilian law enforcement officials say were apparently destined for guerrillas in Colombia in exchange for cocaine that would be shipped to Europe.

This kind of network of arms for drug transfers is so vast, organized and entrenched that the strongman who has dominated Suriname for nearly 20 years, Desi Bouterse, is facing drug trafficking charges in the Netherlands, Suriname's former colonial power.

In addition, the Brazilian press, citing police sources, has accused the Surinamese Embassy of involvement in the arms shipment, but the Surinamese ambassador refused to testify in a recent congressional investigation into drug trafficking, citing his diplomatic status.

More recently, in July, two small planes from Suriname were detected in Brazilian airspace and managed to land at a clandestine airstrip in Vaupés, Colombia, where they unloaded what officials suspect was a cargo of arms for the guerrillas before Colombian troops could locate the planes and blow them up.

Faced with the sweeping scale of the terrain and the problem, Brazilian officials are well aware that an effort as modest as theirs cannot eliminate such traffic. "Our border with Colombia is more than 1,000 miles long, so extensive and with an area of jungle so inhospitable that even if we multiplied by 10 or 15 the forces deployed there, we would still be short of people," General Cardoso said.

The Brazilian Army has 22,000 troops permanently stationed in the Amazon, about 10 percent of its total strength. But the government officially maintains that, in Mr. Sposito's words, "the guerrillas do not exist in Brazil, only narcotraffickers," and has made it clear that it intends to keep its forces as far removed as possible from the combat in Colombia.

"Brazil is not willing to send units of the army or the police to fight alongside their Colombian counterparts, whether against the guerrillas or narcotics traffickers," Minister of Foreign Affairs Luiz Felipe Lampreia said in a recent interview in Brasília. Any additional dispatch of troops that may occur, he added, will be intended exclusively "to strengthen our military presence on the border in order to defend and safeguard our frontier."

But Brazil is already peripherally involved in the Colombian conflict. Late in 1998, Colombia's main left- wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, attacked and briefly held Mitú, a provincial capital in Colombia just across the border, forcing Colombian troops to withdraw to Iauaretê, a base in Brazilian territory.

A Colombian official said recently that Colombian forces were able to retake Mitú by counterattacking partly from Brazil. But when General Cardoso was asked about the incident, he disagreed, saying that "there were many wounded, who for purely humanitarian reasons were treated in our hospital" and that after an exchange of diplomatic notes Brazil obtained "a Colombian commitment that such a thing would not happen again."

The main concern of both governments is a remote and sparsely populated region, known as the Dog's Head, where neither government has much of a presence, spawning fears that guerrilla groups or drug traffickers may be tempted to fill the vacuum.

FARC leaders say they are not active in Brazil and do not plan to be. "Our struggle is in Colombia," so "Brazil can rest assured that there will be no incursions," Raúl Reyes, a rebel spokesman, said in August. But Colombian and American officials say the rebels take that position only because Brazil is more useful to them at the moment as a rear supply base. As Brazilian officials acknowledge, rebels regularly cross the border to buy food and medicine at accessible border settlements where they do not fear capture.

"There is no way to block supplies legally acquired in our country and then transported to Colombian territory," General Cardoso said. "The people doing the buying don't say they are guerrillas, so how are you going to prohibit a shopowner from selling his products to them?"

Brazil is also growing in importance as a source of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture cocaine. Manaus, nearly 1,000 miles downriver from here, is an important industrial center, and Colombian units that have raided cocaine laboratories say they often find labels in Portuguese indicating that the chemicals came from Brazil.

"We've had candid discussions about this, and Brazil is aware of the problem and focused on doing something about it, but they have a huge territory to cover," Mr. Harrington said. "You can't station men all over the Amazon and watch for cement bags coming through," he added, so Brazil plans to "examine and identify the companies that are involved in this business."

Pressures on Brazil to assume a higher profile in the Amazon will, of course, likely require more money and a larger commitment of security forces. But in contrast to a decade ago, when resentment of 21 years of military dictatorship still lingered, it is clear that popular support for such a buildup is now a certainty.

"If there is one positive aspect to the emergence of these problems with Plan Colombia, it is that all of society has now awakened to the necessity of the defense of the Amazon," General Cardoso said.

By Larry Rohter

© 2000, New York Times