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Surveillance of the Amazon


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Brazil Employs Tools of Spying to Guard Itself


MANAUS, Brazil, July 26 For as long as Brazil has been a nation, outlaws of every type, from gold smugglers and slave traders to drug traffickers and gun runners, have taken refuge in the Amazon, the world's largest jungle wilderness, secure in the knowledge that they could not be tracked down.

As of today, though, that shelter is no longer guaranteed. A new American-financed, $1.4 billion system of radars and sensors has begun monitoring activity in a 1.9-million-square-mile area of trackless rain forest and rivers that is larger than half the continental United States.


The system is so sophisticated and comprehensive that Brazilian officials now boast they can hear a twig snap anywhere in the Amazon.

The Amazon Surveillance System will allow Brazil to determine for the first time exactly who is flying through the airspace, whether commercial aircraft or drug dealers. It will also enable the authorities to track illegal logging and deforestation more efficiently, detect foreign guerrilla incursions, protect Indian lands and inhibit the smuggling of rare and endangered animal and plant species.

"This is a historic moment for Brazil," the minister of defense, Geraldo Quintão, said on Thursday during a ceremony here inaugurating the system, which was officially put into operation today. "It transcends the simple unveiling of a government project," he said, allowing Latin America's largest country to "protect our land borders, preserve our natural riches and make the state a presence in our most remote areas."

The system includes 900 listening posts scattered on the ground all over the Amazon. But its backbone consists of 19 radar stations, 5 airborne early-warning jets and 3 remote-sensing aircraft, all of which will feed information via satellite to command centers in this Amazon capital and two others, Belém and Pôrto Velho.

"Because this is a radar system, we will be able to operate day and night, rain or shine," said Gen. Teomar Fonseca Quírico, the project director, making a contrast with satellites. From a height of 33,000 feet and a distance of up to 125 miles, he said, the system can track an image of something as small as a human being.

When first conceived more than a decade ago, the system was meant to answer growing foreign criticism that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the Amazon's delicate environment. But with cocaine production exploding in surrounding countries and a long war against leftist guerrillas worsening in Colombia, the military and drug-interdiction aspects of the project have become more important.

According to a State Department report issued early this year and hotly debated in Brazil, the United States "is now the only nation clearly consuming more cocaine than Brazil." A leading drug trafficker in Rio de Janeiro, Fernandinho Beira Mar, was arrested last year in Colombia in what authorities called a guns-for-drugs scheme involving left-wing guerrillas.

The United States is already working to monitor the western Amazon to close it to drug traffickers flying northward from Bolivia and Peru, said Luís Bittencourt, a Brazilian military analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

With Brazil building more barriers on the other side, he said, "this could create an iron circle to impede those flights."

The Brazilian government has said it is willing to share the intelligence with its neighbors. After inaugurating the project here, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso flew to Guayaquil, Ecuador, for a conference of South American presidents that began today where, he said, he would reiterate that offer and discuss how it might be carried out.

"Brazil is not selfish," Gen. Alberto Cardoso, the government's national security adviser, said in an interview in Brasília.

On Monday Colombia's president-elect, Álvaro Uribe, who takes office early next month, met in Brasília with the president and with General Cardoso. Mr. Uribe has vowed to intensify the war against left-wing guerrillas, who operate in areas bordering Brazil and are also involved in the drug trade. President Cardoso said "combating narco-traffickers" in the border region was one of the topics they discussed.

It is less clear, though, to what degree Brazil intends to share information with the United States. In remarks to reporters after the inauguration, General Quírico said that as of now, the intelligence-sharing offer applied "only to Amazon countries, and if the information is to be passed on to third countries, that is a matter for the Foreign Ministry to consider."

The radar system is being financed largely with a loan from the United States Import-Export Bank, with some funds from Sweden. The contract for the construction was awarded to an American company, the Raytheon Company, after intense lobbying by the United States. That led to speculation in the Brazilian press that the radar was really part of an American plot to seize control of the Amazon and its riches.

To support the system, the Brazilian Air Force plans to deploy as many as 99 aircraft. In 1998 the Brazilian Congress approved legislation permitting the shooting down of aircraft violating Brazilian airspace. But the implementing decrees have still not been announced, much to the frustration of the air force.

"There is no advantage in having a radar system that can see airplanes transporting drugs and arms, and at the same time being unable to force those planes to land," Mauro José Miranda Gandra, a former air force minister, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Brazilian officials said one reason for the delay was concern in the United States that innocent planes could be mistaken for those of drug dealers and shot down, as occurred in Peru last year. Because much of the radar technology and software is American-made, Washington fears it could be held responsible.

General Cardoso said Brazil planned to continue to discuss the issue with several countries, including the United States. "We have the capacity to shoot down planes, but it is important that this be properly regulated, and discussions have been stop-and-go precisely because of the delicacy of the problem," he said.