RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug. 9 (UPI) -- Brazil is testing border security with large-scale military maneuvers along borders with Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay amid increased concerns over international smuggling of drugs, people and weapons and other organized crime.
Middle-class prosperity has raised demand for illicit drugs and drawn economic migrants from neighboring countries, an endemic threat that has emerged with greater severity, officials said.
A combined military exercise by Brazilian armed forces and police launched this week is focused on the country's borders with Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. At least 9,000 troops from the three services are taking part in the exercises that involve light attack aircraft, drones, armored cars and naval vessels.
The exercises coincide with a strike by Brazilian federal police that has affected Brazilian airports. Police pickets demanded higher pay protested in front of federal buildings and international airports.
The security operation, code-named Agata, will last 30 days and involve F-5 fighter jets in operations where threats to Brazil's security from organized crime is an issue of concern.
Drug warlords are known to use aircraft, portable air strips and submersibles for transporting narcotics and in some cases people.
Ministry of Defense data indicated the exercises this year would likely be more intensive than in previous years when similar tests of the security services' capabilities were conducted by the combined armed forces. The exercises will last 30 days and will likely involve units from different forces during the duration.
Brazil has been conducting security exercises on a large scale since 2007.
"One of our objectives is to control the airspace which is being used for illegal activities such as the drug trade and other contraband," Brigade Commander Jose Geraldo Ferreira said.
Illegal mining in Brazil's Amazonian region is also a problem the armed forces want to tackle.
"We are working on three fronts: direct action against criminal activities, support and coordination with government agencies in the different states and good rapport with the people in the area getting our forces involved in cultural, health and education activities," he said.
As part of the image-building exercise, the forces involved in the maneuver would also help with infrastructure repairs, including repairs to schools, run clinics and vaccination campaigns and carry out other development work, Geraldo Ferreira said.
Brazil is preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics and has embarked on a major clean-up campaign to remove slums from urban areas. The cleanup has drawn widespread criticism amid allegations of summary evictions, home demolitions and police brutality.
The war on crime is far from won, however. Despite recent improvements, Brazil rates as one of the top 20 countries in terms of homicide rates.
Latest estimates put Brazil's homicide rate at more than 25 per 100,000. Government officials say statistics on crime in Brazil are exaggerated and have blamed both Brazilian and U.S. film and TV producers for depicting what they consider a persistently negative image.
Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim indicated the border exercises aimed to reach beyond anti-crime measures and send a strong message abroad to foreign adventurers.
"One of the main pillars of Brazilian defense policy is dissuading foreign threats, not from the region where we have full cooperation from the different countries, but to ensure peace and protect our natural resources," said Amorim.
"You can't belong to the group of seven largest economies in the world and not think that someone could be interested in your resources, and in the case of Brazil, energy, oil, the Amazon region, biodiversity, our capability in the production of food, all of which needs a strong dissuasion so as to prevent risks," he said.
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