By Lucy Jordan, Senior Contributing Reporter
BRASÍLIA, BRAZIL – President Dilma Rousseff said Monday that the government had made strides in stemming the flow of drugs, arms and other contraband through Brazil’s long and porous border. During the past year and a half, 360 tons of drugs, 2,200 guns, 280,000 rounds of ammunition and twenty tons of explosives have been seized, she said, in her weekly program “Coffee with the President”.
“Imagine that such weapons could be now in the hands of criminals,” she said. “We will continue to act very firmly to protect our borders and the population of our country.”
Brazil’s Plano Estratégico de Fronteiras (Strategic Border Plan) consists of two major operations, costing some R$8 billion and representing an overhaul in policy: Operation Ágata, led by the Ministry of Defense and mobilizing the Armed Forces, and Operation Sentinel, under which the Ministry of Justice coordinates the Federal Police, the Federal Highway Police and the National Security Force.
President Rousseff acknowledged the logistical difficulty of securing the border: five times as long as that between the United States and Mexico, it adjoins ten countries – including the world’s largest three drug producers – and for more than half of its 17,000 km snakes through dense, largely unpatrolled Amazon rainforest.
“Criminals choose the most vulnerable regions of our border for trafficking in arms and drugs and also for smuggling,” said Rousseff. “Therefore, the fight against crime has demanded firm action and a strong federal presence in the border areas.”
Historically, little effort or funding was spent securing Brazil’s border; there was no need. Yet as the economy of South America’s largest country has leapfrogged its neighbors’, Brazil has become a huge market for cocaine, second only to the U.S., according to a recent study by the Federal University of São Paulo.
As cocaine has seeped in, its cheap and highly destructive derivatives, crack and oxi – cut with solvents like gasoline, kerosene, or even battery fluid – have spread rapidly through urban centers.
Illegal immigration, too, is a relatively new concern for Brazil, with the expansion of the economy and strength of the real giving Brazil a much more attractive job market than many of its neighbors. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Brazil introduced new laws to regulate the influx of Haitian immigrants entering northern Brazil illegally via Peru.
Drug trafficking remains the government’s chief concern along the border though, and has motivated a turn to controversial technical solutions as well as patrol guards. In 2010, Brazil bought fourteen unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as UAVs or drones, from Israel for R$655 million, according to Globo.
“This aircraft makes maps of regions that are difficult to access, recording images at very high resolution and transmitting those images to the Federal Police,” Rousseff explained. “With these, the agents identify suspect goods crossing the Brazilian border through rivers, illegal mining and also identify clandestine airstrips used by drug traffickers.”
Bolivian officials said last year that these Israeli-made drones had been partly responsible for identifying more than 240 drug labs along its border with Brazil. Bolivia is the world’s second largest producer of cocaine after Peru, and officials have estimated that 92 percent of the drug produced there is bound for Brazil.
With the World Cup and Olympics fast approaching, Brazil is keener than ever to tackle its drug epidemic. Earlier this month, São Paulo announced it would begin forcing crack users into rehabilitation.
According to the president, Brazil has already signed agreements with countries including Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to more effectively combat organized crime in the region. The government now aims to intensify cooperation over intelligence and crime prevention.