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Brazilian forces massed near Colombia

MANAUS, Brazil, May 21 (UPI) -- Brazil's armed forces Tuesday began implementing the first stages of a weeklong military exercise along the country's northern border with Colombia.

The forces were deployed to the border area in the northern state of Amazonia on Monday and spent the day preparing for their exercises.

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According to Defense Ministry spokeswoman Rosalba da Mata Machado, Brazilian C-130 Hercules planes transported some 4,000 troops around the region to participate in what have been termed as "war exercises."

In an interview with Brazilian radio earlier Tuesday, Minister of Defense Geraldo Quintao said the exercises -- the first major joint military operation involving the country's Army, Navy and Air Force -- were "especially important now, as we are facing problems such as smuggling, drug trafficking and the guerrillas in Colombia."

"I have always said that Brazil has to turn its face to the north and its back to the south," said Quintao. "A stronger presence in that region (the northern Brazilian state of Amazonia) is necessary because it is the largest part of the national territory, with low demographic density, and a very vast border."

The guerillas Quintao referred to are Colombia's left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as they are known locally.

Machado, however, denied that the armed forces were in the region to counter alleged FARC drugs trafficking across the border into Brazil.

The Colombian guerilla group -- designated by U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization -- has been implicated in drug trafficking and organized crimes as a means of funding its struggle against Colombian government forces.

Testifying in October before the congressional Committee on International Relations' subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, James Mack, deputy assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said that "(t)here often is a nexus between terrorism and organized crime," and identified FARC as an example.

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