RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil is on the sidelines of today’s wars, but at a Rio defense fair this week the South American gentle giant eagerly sought to sell weapons to anyone else who may need to fight.
Brazilian companies account for 150 of the roughly 650 brands on display at the LAAD defense industry exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, ranging from cargo planes to tracer bullets.
They’re the standard bearers of an industry estimated to be worth around 200 billion reais ($64 billion) a year, or 3.7 percent of gross domestic product—and which center-right President Michel Temer wants to grow.
At Brazilian gun manufacturer Taurus’s stand on Wednesday, thickset men flocked to inspect the latest assault rifle, taking turns to aim the sleek, black weapon at imaginary targets.
Visitors in camouflage uniforms handled the bullet-proof vests at Glagio do Brasil, while the curious clambered onto a speedboat bristling with automatic guns built by Brazil’s DGS Defense.
There was particular interest over at Condor, which specializes in non lethal weapons. Two officers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, their uniforms laden with gold brocade, scrutinized the tear gas and rubber bullet rounds, one of which bore the curious label “Soft punch.”
Spokesman Marco Senna said the Brazilian company, which already sells anti-riot gear in 50 countries, is on the warpath.
“We’re already present in the Arab world and we want to get into the Asian market, which has potential and, you could say, is unexplored.”
At first glance, the defense and security industry, which directly employs 30,000 people and indirectly 120,000, according to industry figures, might seem a strange fit for Brazil.
Latin America’s most powerful economy is credited with leaving a peaceful footprint abroad—from classy footballers to the hugely successful Embraer passenger planes. The world’s fifth-largest country basically has no enemies.
Yet the government is gunning to conquer new territory in a field dominated by the United States, followed by Russia, France, Britain and a handful of other leading exporters.
This week, Defense Minister Raul Jungmann announced that the national development bank, BNDES, will start offering loans to help countries buy Brazilian armaments—something that could give homegrown companies a new edge.
“We’re living in a period of what we used to call rearmament,” the minister told journalists Wednesday. “The defense market is expanding today and in this sense Brazil needs to have conditions for competing on an equal footing.”
That aggressive push into the arms market has sparked criticism.
Taurus—which has a factory in Miami to support its booming US trade in civilian revolvers like the huge “Raging Bull” .44 magnum—has been implicated in a controversy over alleged illegal shipments of handguns to a Yemeni arms dealer.
Although Taurus itself is not facing charges over the sales to the Yemeni, who was on a UN sanctions list, the episode fed worries that Brazil could become a loose cannon.
Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute think tank in Rio, says Brazilian-made cluster bombs may also have been used in Yemen, while tear gas and other crowd control weapons have been deployed by police in countries with poor human rights records like Bahrain and Egypt.
“Brazil is especially nontransparent when it comes to reporting on weapons transfers and end use,” he said in an email.
Brazilian officials say that all weapons exports are rigorously monitored and regulated. However, adding to suspicions of a lack of accountability in the Brazilian arms trade, the government won’t even say how much is sold abroad.
“We are not able to separate these figures and we are looking now at how we can separate them,” Jungmann said Wednesday, when asked by AFP for the value of Brazilian weapons exports.
Muggah, an expert in security matters, describes Brazil as “a medium-sized player” overall, but “a major power when it comes to exports of small arms, light weapons, parts and components and ammunition…. It is regularly in the top five exporters globally.”
Mauricio Lima, representing the SIMDE defense industry union at the arms fair, said Brazil can feel good about its ambitions.
“You think of the defense industry as war and destruction but above all the defense industry is about order,” he said.
And although Brazil’s deep recession and government spending cuts mean it’s hard to keep up with richer countries, even economic crisis has brought some benefit to the sector.
“Until three or four years ago, tear gas was imported,” he said.
“But all the social crisis and street protests have prompted (Brazilian) companies to develop their own. Now they even export.”