A recent joint air force exercise is supposed to herald a new era of border security cooperation between Brazil and Venezuela, although this may simply be cover for Brazil's ambitious security agenda.
In late May the air forces of Brazil and Venezuela completed Operation Venbra VI, in which 13 Venezuelan and eight Brazilian airplanes (including Embraer Super Tucanos, pictured) flew joint missions, simulating border security operations along 700 kilometers of frontier. A key goal of the operation was to improve the interception of illicit aircraft; in one exercise, airplanes crossed from one country into the other, and radar systems were used to track and eventually intercept the target craft.
There are plenty of reasons why both countries should be interested in coordinating with each others' air force. By passing on information about illicit aircraft, Venezuela can help Brazil identify and stop more aerial drug traffickers, who take advantage of the vast, mostly ungoverned space along the border. The Amazon region at the frontier is ideal trafficking territory, with numerous illicit airstrips and an array of riverine transit routes to move illegal cargo once the planes land.
These joint Venezuela-Brazil security exercises are supposed to eventually lead to improved enforcement along the border, but there are limits to these potential benefits. For one, recent scandals hinting at a high level of penetration by organized crime into Venezuela's military raise questions about the quality of a partnership with that regime.
Even if Venezuela's army were cleaner than clean (and there are reasons to question the accusations leveled against top military officials), there are other hazards at play that could limit the depth of the partnership: if Venezuela is compelled to force an aircraft down, it is more likely to incur a costly burden for the investigation, limiting its incentive to offer much help. Despite Congress' recent approval of a shoot-down policy for suspicious drug flights, Venezuela does not suffer much by only partially committing to halting aerial drug trafficking. Since most of the air traffic is likely flowing from Venezuela into Brazil, a growing consumer of drugs as well as, like Venezuela, a key transit point for cocaine headed to Europe, Brazil arguably has more to lose than Venezuela from airborne drug trafficking.
Along with joint exercises with its neighbors, Brazil has responded to this increased threat with a major border security buildup supported by a $6.3 billion budget. But it's possible that by pursuing increased security cooperation with Venezuela, Brazil isn't expecting much in terms of more shoot-downs and drug seizures. Rather, the more important results may be political, not operational.
Teaming up with Venezuela for the sake of joint border exercises is arguably an attempt to correct the one-sidedness of Brazil's previous border security operation, Operaton Agata IV, which targeted Brazil's northern frontier. The disparity in the size of the two operations is striking: some 50 troops and eight airplanes participated in the recent Brazil-Venezuela exercise, compared to Agata IV's deployment of over 8,000 troops, 27 airplanes, and nine helicopters.
Admittedly, comparing the breadth of these two operations may be a case of apples and oranges. But since Brazil initiated its border security crackdown in July 2011, Brazil has emphasized claiming credit for the results achieved by its own forces, including the seizure of some 115 tons of narcotics. This feeds the impression that so far, Brazil's solo efforts are producing far bigger results than the token operations with its neighbors.
Still, Brazil has good reason to pursue these token operations as they defuse the political tensions ignited by big troop buildups. Brazil's unilateral efforts have already sparked controversy; last year Paraguay protested against Brazil's military exercises near its border, citing a drop in legitimate trade. Perhaps in an effort to avoid such spats, before Operation Agata IV Brazilian officials visited Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana to explain the deployment, the New York Times reported. Officially, Brazil insists on regional security cooperation, but so far the thrust of its border security crackdown has emphasized unilateral operations. Brazil's training exercise with Venezuela was possibly a maneuver aimed at defusing some of these tensions.
Brazil has already conducted joint military operations with many of its ten neighbors, including Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay. If Brazil's border security plan should truly transform into one that emphasizes cross-border collaboration, there could be reason to praise the country for deploying what the Financial Times called "ambitious hub-and-spoke bilateralism."
It seems Brazil's newfound clout (or at least, its new understanding of its clout) has made it a regional power player able to take a mostly solitary approach to its internal security, shelling out for nominal joint exercises with its many neighbors to smooth over the political fallout from its own much larger, and, it appears, more concretely effective, solo missions. In addition to its considerable economic resources, Brazil has increased political capital with which to chart its own course on security, and the country look increasingly willing to do so.