Brazil's Soldiers Learn to Love the Jungle
PLACIDO DE CASTRO BASE, Brazil A sign saying "The tears begin here" greets the young Brazilian soldiers as they clamber down from trucks and begin a march along a track in the Amazon jungle.
Weighed down by two heavy packs, two rifles and tramping along in sweltering heat, several stumble and fall on the way.
They are berated by instructors blowing whistles who force them back on their feet without help from their comrades. They wade across a stream in water shoulder-deep, watched by two frisky alligators in a cage.
"You are in the jungle now," shouts Capt. Marcelo Vila. "Speed it up, speed it up."
The 100 or so officers and sergeants are on the second day of a 10-week course at the Brazilian army's Jungle Warfare Training Center (CIGS). They will pass that night in the jungle alone, surrounded by snakes, jaguars and other dangers.
Later they will spend five days deep in the jungle in small groups equipped with only a gun and machete, having hopefully learned by then how to live off what the forest offers.
"Our principle mission is the formation of the jungle warrior," CIGS commander Lt. Col. Gustavo de Souza Abreu said back at the headquarters in the city of Manaus.
"We call the soldiers the defender of the Amazon."
The vast region is the Brazilian military's strategic priority. It covers more than 2 million square miles , crisscrossed by rivers and home to a multitude of wildlife.
The school was founded in 1964, the year when 21 years of military rule began in Brazil. At the time, revolutionaries were fighting in jungles from southeast Asia to Latin America.
"Today, the reality is different. We don't have revolutionary movements but we have to protect our frontier," Abreu said in an interview.
The Amazon shares 6,835 miles of borders with seven other countries. Smuggling of drugs, weapons and other items is rife. A spillover of the war in Colombia between the U.S.-backed government and FARC rebels is always possible.
Illegal logging and ranching have caused widespread environmental damage and frequent bloodshed. Government and police authority is often absent and communications are poor.
The military itself has pursued a policy of developing the Amazon, starting with the construction of the Trans-Amazon Highway in the 1960s. Officers have spoken of opening up the Amazon as Brazil's "manifest destiny."
In recent years, the army has boosted the number of troops here to a current total of about 22,000. Thus training soldiers how to survive and operate in the jungle is key.
At the introduction session, Capt. Mario Brayer bellows out the jungle warrior's creed to the assembled pupils -- "To those who dare threaten our Amazon, the adventure could cost too much." They shout the words back.
The student officers and sergeants are volunteers from different battalions based in the Amazon. The majority hail from eastern states like Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro and know little about the jungle.
"The problem in the jungle is panic and fear. They have to learn how to be calm and use their reason," Lt. Antonio Santos Filho said.
They are told to think like the hunter, not the hunted. They will learn what to eat -- nuts, vegetables, snake, fish or wild pig. Indian guides teach them to hunt and what plants make good medicine. They are taught how to make bush shelters.
"For those who know it, the jungle is a shopping mall. For those who don't, it is hell. You have to learn its advantages. Everything you need is there," Santos Filho said.
They learn how to make their way in the river system and to swim with a heavy pack. They learn to orientate themselves by the stars and moon, to keep going in rough conditions without rest. And they learn how to patrol and fight.
Most of the training takes place in a 444-square-mile slice of dense jungle stretching north of the Amazon just east of Manaus. That's an area nearly twice the size of Singapore.
During the march to the camp, the pupils are ordered to recite the jungle warriors' prayer. They reach a point where jugs of juice are set out on a table. "Who wants juice?" asks one instructor. Toughened by their training, none of the students accept the offer, which would be seen as a sign of weakness.
The pupils are addressed only by the number on their bush hat, not by name. Any time a pupil speaks to an instructor, he ends with the shout "selva!" (jungle).
The tough treatment has a purpose.
"He has to be prepared physically and above all, psychologically," Maj. Leudo Bellochio said. "There is a constant psychological stress, like in combat."
After two days, 17 of the original 103 pupils have dropped out. Those who complete the course will return to their units posted on bases throughout the nine Amazon states.
In total 4,026 officers and sergeants have completed the course in the past 40 years, among them 345 from foreign armies, including all the neighboring countries and France, whose overseas territory of French Guiana borders Brazil.