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Brazil strengthens border security

Military launches largest border security operation ever ahead of mega events such as next year's football World Cup.
Last modified: 25 May 2013 06:33
Soldiers are checking cars at the only direct 'official' crossing point between Guyana and Brazil [Gabriel Elizondo]

The Brazilian military has launched their largest border security operation ever – spanning the entire 16,000 kilometres of Brazil’s border with 10 different countries. The operation is called Agata 7, and is intended to crack down on illegal activity on the porous border regions ahead of mega events such as the Confederations Cup this next month, Pope Francis visit to Rio in July, and the World Cup next year. Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo is spending several days embedded with a military unit in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, bordering Guyana and Venezuela. This is his first blog post about what he’s seen.

Bonfim, Brazil – It's fairly quiet today, with only a few cars whizzing over the bridge that spans the Tacutu River. A couple young men on bikes peddle by.

But this is an important bridge: On one side, low lying forest and the country of Guyana. On the other side, this dusty and mostly deserted Brazilian border town of 10,700 people where the biggest building is an "Assembly of God" box church with fading paint – a victim of the baking sun here.

Right here, the two lane bridge is the only direct 'official' crossing point between Guyana and Brazil. For a remote outpost it's normally a busy passageway where between 600 to 900 cars pass through everyday between countries.

The bridge is increasing seen as an easy access point for contraband coming from Guyana into Brazil. When I ask one Brazilian customs agent what illegal products are smuggled in from Guyana from this area, her response is simple: "Everything," she tells me flatly.

On a normal day, a few customs agents and a couple federal police officers are tasked with the job of checking who is coming into Brazil from here and what they're bringing in with them.

But today they're being helped by over a dozen Brazilian soldiers who are checking every single vehicle coming in. The cars are lined up – 12 deep at the checkpoint.

The soldiers check under the hood, in the trunk, underneath the engine while customs agents look on. They check documentation of everybody in the vehicle. It's all part of a massive border operation taking place in Brazil right now to crack down on illegality on Brazil's border region here.

Criminals take a vacation

But today there is noticeably less traffic. And that's because this massive military saturation is temporary, and the bad guys know it.

"The criminals take a vacation because they know about the operation" Gen. Jose Luiz Jaborandy said from his command post on a base in the state capital of Boa Vista.

But these saturation operations serve their purpose, officials say. It reinforces the presence of the Brazilian state in this otherwise forgotten borderlands.

Brazil has some of the longest borders of any country in the world: 16,000 kilometres in all, bordering 10 countries. This part is just a sliver, but it's still big. The state of Roraima has 900 kilometres of border just with Guyana.

But the military presence in this region of Brazil on a normal day is scant: Brazil has just three small bases on the border with Guyana. Each base has less than 100 soldiers. The base here in Bonfim, which I visited, has 66 soldiers. This means that Brazil has less than 200 soldiers guarding a 900 kilometre border that is roughly the distance from New York City to Charlotte, or London to Zurich.

That is also why decision makers in Brasilia feel these colossal military border operations are critical. And partly why in 2011 Pres. Dilma Rousseff launched a national plan to regain control of Brazil’s unwieldy border regions. The plan is simply called the “Strategic Plan for the Borders,” and it means, in short, boots on the ground.

Border control

It's been playing out in a series of military exercises over the past two years, but the current operation is the largest and most ambitious of them all and the first time Brazil has tried to lock down all 16,000 kilometres of border at once.

And that is what is playing out in this forgotten little border town a stone throws away from Guyana.

It's been a fairly slow day at the checkpoint. Remember, the really bad guys are on vacation and in no mood to drive into a checkpoint where a dozen soldiers with machine guns are standing guard.

But back in the capital of Boa Vista, Gen. Jaborandy gets word that Brazil’s environmental protection agents and federal police have intelligence on a large illegal logging operation in the southern part of the state.

They're going to break it up on Saturday, but they need backup.

The Army will send in a jungle team. We’ll be with them.

What we discover we’ll share in the next blog post.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel