Pedro Pablo Permuy, then-deputy U.S. assistant secretary of defense for inter-American policy, arrived in Manaus, Brazil, in fall 2000 on a mission.

Brazil was hosting for the first time the Defense Ministerial Conference of the Americas, a meeting of the Western Hemisphere’s top defense officials, where regional security concerns would be discussed. Permuy was determined to convince his counterparts from the 26 other nations attending the summit that the word “narcotraffic” should be included in the final communiqué. In the decade after the Cold War ended, Washington had turned to the war on drugs as a unifying theme in its relations with Latin American governments. And in the months prior to the Manaus conference, the U.S. Congress had approved Plan Colombia—the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package that was the centerpiece of the Clinton administration’s approach to the region. Permuy wanted his counterparts to endorse Washington’s strategic vision for the region.

But Brazil—the largest country in Latin America that for years had eschewed U.S. military influence—was skeptical about endorsing Plan Colombia in its entirety. The conventional wisdom within the Brazilian government and, to some extent, among Brazilians, held that Plan Colombia was a Washington-engineered operation handed over to Colombia for strict adherence, as well as a vehicle for post-Cold War influence in the region by the United States. Supporting the plan would be a risky move for Brazil’s president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, especially since the United States had backed the 21-year military dictatorship in Brazil that ended in 1985. Anti-Americanism was still widespread in the country—a fact politicians could not discount.

Before the conference, Permuy had maneuvered to have the United States appointed coordinator country for a meeting significantly named “Defense and Development: Possibilities for Regional Cooperation.” The U.S. delegation then put its Colombian counterparts on a key subgroup, “Transnational Threats: National Experiences and Opportunities for Cooperation.” The jockeying for position on the various groups served U.S. priorities: Plan Colombia was in a position to dominate the agenda.

Permuy’s efforts to rally the assembled Latin American military leaders to sign a joint declaration in support of Plan Colombia that included “narcotraffic,” the defining term in the lexicon of the U.S. war on drugs, were unsuccessful.

The Brazilians balked at the term, but did agree to language that embodied the general concerns of the United States—a remarkable compromise, considering the years of hemispheric distance between the two countries that was only just beginning to be bridged.

“It is important to continue to support the efforts of states and institutions dedicated to the struggle against illicit drugs and related criminal activities that cross national boundaries and pose singular challenges to regional security and stability,” the Manaus communiqué said. “All forms of terrorism are condemned; continued hemispheric cooperation against all forms of terrorism should be fostered keeping in mind that terrorism poses a serious threat to hemispheric democracy.”

The weaker language prompted then-Deputy Defense Undersecretary James Bodner to warn the other ministers in a closed meeting that Washington would not be deterred in its counternarcotics strategy. “Plan Colombia,’’ a meeting participant quoted Bodner as saying, “will be implemented with or without international solidarity.”

His tough talk, in turn, created a political uproar in Brazil. “That was the old-fashioned American arrogance back,” said João Herrmann, a member of the Brazilian parliament’s Defense Committee.

Still, while the final declaration signed in Manaus fell short of the full endorsement of Plan Colombia and did not include the term “narcotraffic” that Washington sought, Permuy’s efforts were hardly a failure. With the help of Brazil, the Declaration of Manaus ended up being the most wide-ranging document on narcotics trafficking ever written by any of the four Defense Ministerial Conferences of the Americas.

Permuy declined to comment on his role at the defense summit, but several Brazilian military officials provided detailed descriptions of his extensive lobbying efforts. “Permuy is our friend,” Brazilian Defense Minister Geraldo Quintão said of the U.S. official, who has Cuban relatives, speaks fluent Spanish and some Portuguese. “We are aware of the threats of narcotraffic and the final document in Manaus just expressed that.”

William Cohen, who was then U.S. defense secretary, said his delegation had “presented a United States security strategy for the Americas, showing that there is something much broader than simply the issue affecting Colombia.” 

But the issue affecting Colombia—a decades-long civil war increasingly bankrolled by drug money—was the focal point of the broader strategy. Brazil had already intensified military and police operations along its 1,000-mile border with Colombia and had its own “Plano Cobra” (Plan Cobra; “Co” for Colombia and “bra” for Brazil), intended to curb any possible spillover of guerrilla and narcotrafficking operations to Brazilian territory. The impact of Plan Colombia’s crackdown on leftist guerrillas, particularly in southern Colombia, is a main concern for Brazilian authorities in the Amazon. The army, especially, fears the U.S.-backed crackdown in Colombia may push some narcotraffickers, also referred to as narcoterrorists, across the border.

The United States has been enthusiastic about Plan Cobra and has backed it financially. “[It] is an interesting idea that a number of countries could look to see if that model would work for them,” Bill Brownfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters in the capital, Brasília, as the Manaus summit ended. U.S. aid to Brazil’s federal police, who are responsible for waging the country’s fight against illegal drugs, increased from $1.2 million in 1999 to $5 million in fiscal year 2000. Fiscal 2001 aid was budgeted at $2 million, and aid in 2002 was set to rise dramatically to $15 million. “The significant increase in resources requested for Brazil,” the U.S. State Department noted, “is needed to support programs designed to combat the growing problem of cross-border narcotrafficking, such as Operation Cobra, and in response to measures needed to support the administration’s overall Andean Regional Initiative for Colombia and the bordering countries.”

The goal of the U.S. aid is to “assist Brazil’s efforts to improve the institutional capabilities of the Federal Police to disrupt the activities of major trafficking organizations, interdict illegal drugs and control precursor chemicals,” the State Department said in its budget proposal. The department noted that Brazil had made progress in its fight against illegal drugs, which justified the increased aid. “The Brazilian government has continued to intensify its counternarcotics efforts and activities in 1999—building on gains made in 1998 when it began to more aggressively pursue international narcotics traffickers in the Amazon region and elsewhere.” 

Brazil was governed by a repressive military dictatorship for more than two decades after a U.S.-backed military coup in 1964. Then, in the 1970s, the Carter administration curtailed relations with Brazil over human rights abuses and Brazil’s attempts to procure a nuclear weapon. In response, the Brazilian military cut off cooperation with the United States in 1977.

Relations improved at end of Cold War

Relations between the two countries did not start improving until the end of the Cold War highlighted common interests.

For decades, the Brazilian military had justified its role in society, including the violent suppression of civilian institutions, as necessary to defend against leftist subversion. Brazil’s gradual return to civilian government, beginning in 1985, and the end of the Cold War left an ideological void for the military. It found a new agenda in the war on drugs.

As in the United States, being tough on drugs is politically popular in Brazil, and in the 1990s, the drug war replaced the Cold War on the military agenda between Brazil and the United States. While Brasilia and Washington have their disagreements on drug policy, they are working together more closely. And, after years of keeping Washington and its generals at bay, the Brazilian military seems to be aware of the choice the country is making.

“During the Cold War, communism served as a frame for the U.S. to exercise their influence in the American continent,” said Gen. Alberto Cardoso, among the most influential high-ranking army officers in Brazil and the closest military adviser to President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (no relation). “As the conjuncture of communism ended,” the general told ICIJ, “it [narcotics trafficking] appeared naturally as a new cause to justify the same geopolitical and geostrategic interests. In that case, the war on drugs justifies for the U.S. their external military operations.”

Indeed, the United States, which for years limited aid to Latin America’s largest economy, is cooperating with Brazil in building an enormous post-Cold War security network. Washington is providing funds for Brazil’s accelerating anti-drug efforts. And, under the terms of a deal signed in June 2000, in exchange for free weaponry, the Brazilian military is opening its bases to U.S. inspections.

The agreement to provide Brazil with U.S. materiel, known as “Protocol 505,” is a provision under which the United States allows signatory nations (of which there are nearly 90) to receive “excess defense articles,” weapons outmoded by U.S. military standards. Countries that agree to Protocol 505 receive the weapons at no cost; however, in return they yield sovereignty by allowing U.S. military personnel to inspect—regularly and without advance notice—the end-use of the donated military hardware. Brazil has since received $18 million worth of hardware, including four frigates and two other ships, more than the country received throughout the 1990s in other forms of U.S. military aid.

“The Brazilian government, when requested by the United States, will allow continuous evaluation and observation visits and will supply the required data [on the use of donated excess defense articles],” according to a classified memo from the Army Command, obtained by ICIJ. “But that will be implemented in a cooperative and agreeable manner for both countries. The U.S. personnel will not take part in any operational activity in which those defense articles may be used.”

Brazilian officers skeptical of U.S. motives

Protocol 505 serves both nations’ interests. It allows Brazil to acquire equipment and hardware free of cost, while giving both the U.S. military and defense industry a toehold in the Brazilian military. Brazil is likely to become dependent on the American hardware, and in need of its spare parts, and thus is likely to buy more in the future. Protocol 505 also allows a U.S. military presence inside Brazilian military bases—precisely why several Brazilian military officers privately express concern with the agreement.

The skepticism about U.S. motives in Brazil extends to the most ambitious joint venture the two countries have undertaken. Washington and Brasilia are building an enormous network of listening posts in the Amazon. SIVAM, the System for Vigilance of the Amazon, is a $1.7 billion military surveillance system for the Brazilian Amazon that was sold initially as a way to prevent ecological damage, but increasingly seems destined for use in the drug war and in efforts to monitor and contain Colombia’s guerrilla conflict.

The contract to build SIVAM—the largest Brazilian government contract with a foreign company—was signed on March 14, 1997, by the government of Brazil; a consortium of private defense contractors led by the U.S. firm Raytheon; and two Brazilian firms, Embraer and Fundação Aplicações de Tecnologias Críticas (ATECH). The U.S. Export-Import Bank is the largest of four financiers, providing loans and a guarantee worth $1.39 billion.

SIVAM will allow Brazil to monitor the entire Amazon region. In addition to tracking suspected narcotics flights, SIVAM includes high-tech listening planes, 25 radar stations, environmental quality monitoring posts and a network of phone, fax and modem connections to enable speedier police and medical communications with the hinterland. It will collect environmental data on the Amazonian ecosystem, monitor population movements, and detect illegal logging and mining. It may also be used to update maps and control diseases among indigenous populations. The data collected through SIVAM’s vast networks is to be fed into powerful computers designed to sift the strategic wheat from the chaff.

Raytheon, the primary builder of the SIVAM project, plans to install 200 monitoring stations throughout the Amazon and, by 2002, expects to have 19 fixed and six mobile radar stations operational. They will feed information to three regional surveillance centers in Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazonas state; Porto Velho, the capital of Roraima; and Belém, the capital of Pará. The three surveillance centers will each transmit data to SIVAM’s General Coordination Center, which is being built in the nation’s capital of Brasília.

SIVAM is to be operated by the Brazilian government, but President Cardoso has promised to share the data with Brazil’s neighbors, presumably including Colombia. However, some Brazilian military officers, interviewed by ICIJ, said they feared that Raytheon, whose clients include U.S. military and intelligence agencies, may retain the ability to decrypt Brazilian secrets from SIVAM and pass them on to the United States.

Such intrigue was evident in the bidding process for SIVAM, as U.S. and French officials faced off in support of rival multinationals Raytheon and Thomson-CSF. The project was delayed after the Brazilian press reported in 1994 that a top-level Raytheon executive had bribed Brazilian government officials to win their support. A Brazilian Senate commission concluded there was not enough evidence to prove that the government or Raytheon broke the law. Eventually, Raytheon was awarded the contract after the Senate approved the project. Thomson-CSF was also accused of trying to bribe Brazilian officials, and the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly played a role in exposing illegal payments by Thomson-CSF executives.

Relatively indifferent of U.S. influence

Despite better bilateral relations in the post-Cold War era, Brazil has tried to maintain relative independence from U.S. influence, compared with other large countries on the continent. Direct aid to Brazilian police and military forces totaled $11.8 million from 1997 to 1999, less than 2 percent of what Colombian security forces received in 2000 and 2001 as part of Plan Colombia. Brazil received about $2.7 million in State Department assistance under the International Narcotics Control program from 1996 through 1999, and in 1998 received $2 million from the Defense Department under statutes that allow the Pentagon to provide counternarcotics assistance directly to foreign agencies.

The largest military transfers from the United States to Brazil have involved not military aid, but arms sales and lease agreements. Brazil consistently ranked among the top recipients of U.S. arms through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program in the 1990s. Brazil bought $285.4 million worth of U.S. arms from 1996 to 1999, and has pending agreements for another $102.3 million. In addition to U.S. government weapons sales, Brazil also bought $20.7 million worth of arms from private U.S. firms that were licensed by the State Department from 1996 to 1999. Brazil is also leasing some military equipment from the United States, including tank landing ships and several frigates.

Brazilian military officers have received training from the United States, but again, the relationship is far less intense than with other Latin countries. A total of 150 Brazilian soldiers were trained under International Military Education and Training programs from 1996 through 2000—less than 9 percent of the number of Colombian officers trained in the same period. Three students were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning, Ga., and 20 attended the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington over the same period. At the same time, 33 students were trained at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. U.S. Special Forces under the Defense Department’s Special Operations Command have trained a total of 56 Brazilian soldiers from 1997 to 1999 under the Joint Combined Exchange Training program in Brazil. There have been no documented cases of human rights abuses linked to either U.S. training or U.S. military aid in Brazil since military relations resumed in the post-Cold War decade.

Bringing the military into the drug war is controversial in Brazil. The 1988 constitution does not define the military’s role in a way that clearly includes domestic anti-drug efforts. But in 1996, President Cardoso issued a secret military order that defined drug trafficking as a national security concern and authorized the military to work with the Brazilian Federal Police on counternarcotics-related intelligence, communications and logistics. Although the government never publicized the order, Brazilian military commanders have openly referred to it on several occasions.

Of 22,000 Brazilian army soldiers based in the Amazon region, 6,000 are deployed along the Colombian border, along with an estimated 3,000 Federal Police agents. The Brazilian navy has another 3,000 men patrolling rivers in the border area. Defense Minister Quintão hopes to increase the military budget for the border region from $7.1 million in 2000 to over $25 million in 2001. The total budget for the Brazilian military in 1999, by comparison, was $10.3 billion.

Brazil is Latin America’s most populous country, its largest economy and is the second-largest regional trading partner with the United States after Mexico. Cooperation on counter-drug issues, as well as Brazil’s improved human rights record and compliance with non-proliferation treaties, has improved ties between Washington and Brasilia. “The relationship is very good, and it is likely to become even stronger as Brazil expresses itself more fully in the international arena,” the Brazilian army commander, Gen. Gleuber Vieira, told ICIJ.

Civilian-ruled Brazil has also increasingly looked to the United States as a model for the reorganization of its military and counternarcotics program. In June 1999, Brazil created a new civilian ministry, led by a civilian defense minister, to oversee its three military forces: the army, the navy and the air force. Defense Minister Quintão told ICIJ that Brazil’s military restructuring paralleled the Pentagon’s 1986 restructuring that sought to streamline the flow of military intelligence and advice from Defense Department agencies to the president and to strengthen civilian authority within the defense forces.

President Cardoso in July 1998 also created a National Anti-Drug Secretariat, known by its Portuguese acronym Senad, that is similar in purpose and structure to the U.S. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. But even comparison to its North American counterpart can still bristle the Brazilian military, despite the improved relations. “It is not a simple copy of the North American model,’’ Gen. Cardoso insisted in an interview. “Narcotics trafficking is a fact, and it is increasing. Besides, there are many crimes linked to it. Of course, there may have been some North American influence, in the sense that it was an already existing model. But we did not intend to make it a copy just to please someone.”

Brazil’s drug czar left after two years

But there are those who disagree. Gen. Cardoso’s predecessor as Brazil’s drug czar was civilian judge Wálter Fanganiello Maierovitch, who left the post in April 2000 after two years. Maierovitch told ICIJ that he resigned over Brazil’s excessive obeisance to U.S. pressure for drug war initiatives, including Plan Colombia, which he described as “pure diversionary tactics.” Maierovitch said that instead of pursuing a drug crop source eradication strategy in South America, the United States should instead focus on the money flow of the drug trade by curbing illegal bank transactions and cracking down on money laundering.

Clandestine U.S. counternarcotics operations in Brazil have also caused concern. The Brazilian magazine Carta Capital reported in May 2000 that a Brazilian citizen had been hired by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent, Tony Mendonça, to infiltrate a drug-trafficking ring and report its activities to Pat Healy, the DEA country chief in Brazil. The Brazilian informant was paid $3,000 a month by the DEA, according to Carta Capital. However, the DEA failed to share information from the informant and other sources with the Brazilian Federal Police, leaving a lingering distrust between the two national agencies.

“The United States, our historical ally, with whom we fought together two world wars, is undoubtedly our most important interlocutor,” Defense Minster Quintão said in a June 2000 address at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “We share principles and values with the United States and have kept an outspoken relationship with them, with clear propositions, although we don’t always have to agree upon everything, as is the case with any mature relationship.”

But even as they lead Brazil into a greater role in the U.S.-backed drug war, Brazilian officials have sought to maintain a friendly distance from the United States. “It is not only a matter of combating narcotics trafficking and coke producers. It is a matter of combating consumption. It is not fair to imagine that only the countries which produce drugs must fight, while those that consume it remain above the fray,’’ Cardoso told a summit of Latin American presidents in September 2000. “We also feel responsible for the fight against narcotics trafficking. No money was offered to us and no money was asked. We do not accept any relationship that implies coordination and much less subordination of the Brazilian state or of the armed forces to another country.”