Long before Lula’s Worker’s Party and Jair Bolsonaro’s “Beef, Bible and Bullets” coalition split the Brazilian electorate in half, the Amazon rainforest was an ideological chessboard where presidents, generals and revolutionaries played out their visions for the country.
For Lula, the Amazon is an irreplaceable ecosystem, home to threatened Indigenous peoples and precious biodiversity. For Bolsonaro, the Amazon is a resource-rich backwater, squandered by prehistoric natives who take up too much land. Yet if Brazilians on the left and right can agree on one issue, it’s that the Amazon is a national treasure, deeply entwined with the fate of the country.
“I don’t want any gringo asking us to let an Amazon resident die of hunger under a tree,” Lula exclaimed at the Amazon summit in 2009, near the peak of his geopolitical influence.
“We understand the importance of the Amazon for the world, but the Amazon is ours,” Bolsonaro told foreign reporters in 2019, as slash-and-burn farmers razed the rainforest, spilling smoke across the continent. “No country in the world has the moral right to talk about the Amazon. You destroyed your own ecosystems.”
Lula poured billions into the Amazon for infrastructure and social programs during his first two terms and has appointed a diverse cabinet of new ministers to reinvigorate his old policies in the years ahead. During his polarizing term, Bolsonaro stood watch as illegal loggers and wildcat miners threatened Indigenous lives and land, stoking fears that an undeveloped rainforest left the country vulnerable to communist threats and foreign interference.
On January 8, 2023, busloads of Bolsonaro supporters—many from Brazil’s deforested heartland—swarmed the capitol in a thwarted attempt to overturn Lula’s reelection, possibly with support from members of the armed forces. Now it is up to Lula to restore order and redefine progress.
These dueling visions for the country and the military’s powerful role in the Amazon have deep roots. The Brazilian government spent the twentieth century integrating the rainforest into the economic and cultural fabric of the country, stringing telegraph lines, building highways, and “pacifying” countless Indigenous tribes along the way. The legacy of Cold War era policies scars the landscape and its people in the form of plantations, airstrips and hydroelectric dams, many built in defiance of grandly worded but poorly enforced environmental and Indigenous protection laws.
Today, the Brazilian Amazon is the most militarized region on the South American continent, home to one of the longest and most heavily patrolled borders in the world. Naval battalions patrol its rivers night and day. Air Force jets and satellites watch its skies. Jungle troop units dot the landscape. Whichever way the political winds are blowing, however progressive or retrograde the rhetoric from Brasília, Amazon policy is shaped first and foremost through the lens of national security.
The Jungle Warfare Center in Manaus—the largest city in the Amazon rainforest—was inaugurated on June 2, 1964, two months after the Brazilian armed forces overthrew President João Goulart in a US-backed coup that locked in two decades of military dictatorship. On a trade mission to China just prior to assuming the presidency, Goulart—or Jango, as he was commonly known—praised Chairman Mao as “an outstanding poet, theoretician and revolutionary strategist.” By the time Jango returned to Brasília, the Pentagon was drawing up plans to overthrow him.
The Jungle Warfare Center was established to ensure that communism never took root in the Brazilian Amazon the way it had in the forests of Cuba and Vietnam. Since 1954, Brazilian officers had been trained in jungle warfare operations at the US Army’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Now in the sweltering port city of Manaus, where the brown waters of the Rio Solimões meet the black currents of the Rio Negro, Brazilian officers would retransmit those lethal tactics to their own men in the Jungle Warfare Center.
Manaus was proof that the Amazon was hostile to order and progress. Since the first rubber boom of the mid-nineteenth century, the city bloomed or withered with the cycles of the river and the market. When rubber prices soared, developers built electric trams and baroque theaters and floating casinos. When prices crashed, developments were abandoned and retaken by the forest. Only prosperity could lead to security. Untamed jungles were ripe for revolution.
“What a luminous, near future would be visible to us if two, three, or many Vietnams flourished throughout the world,” said Che Guevara in a 1967 address to the newly formed Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. “Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people’s unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America.”
By defending the Amazon, soldiers would defend the nation against rebels and infiltrators. Within the first decade of the Jungle Warfare Center, soldiers trained there were deployed in a protracted conflict with Maoist insurgents in the Amazon in which a few dozen idealistic college students thwarted the largest Brazilian military detachment since World War II. The details of the guerrilla war were censored from an entire generation of Brazilians. To this day, stories of the conflict are entangled in military archives, Communist Party records and oral histories, each source with its own muddled view of the conflict.
By the 1980s, as the country reopened to democracy, lessons from the Amazon battlefield were codified by the Brazilian Army as the Six Laws of Jungle Warfare in Brazil, laws attributable as much to the guerrillas as to the Special Forces who struggled to extinguish them.
1. Take initiative, for you will not receive orders for every situation. Keep the ultimate goal in mind.
Before Oswaldo Orlando da Costa became a legend along the Araguaia River, enshrined in myth as a man able to turn himself into stone, he was a boxer with quick feet and a mean jab, the Black Giant, Champion of Rio de Janeiro. It was there he received his first military training as an Army Reserve Officer, where he decided that the Army was not for Afro-Brazilians, that Brazil was not for Afro-Brazilians, that he was better off overseas. In April 1964, the month of the coup, he joined a group of 15 radicals sponsored by the Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B) to study the Maoist tradition of guerrilla warfare in Beijing and Nanjing.
Oswaldo returned to Brazil in secret with a head full of revolutionary ideas. By 1966, the PC do B had embraced the idea that armed resistance was the only way to overthrow the dictatorship. In the tradition of Mao, that resistance would necessarily be a people’s war, born in the countryside.
In the eyes of the PC do B, the most disenfranchised people in Brazil were in the rainforest: caboclos—Brazilian riverfolk, often of mixed Indigenous ancestry—and landless migrants who had fled drought and starvation in the Northeast, only to be exploited by US-backed mining and timber companies along the new Trans-Amazonian Highway. In the remote web of waterways where the Araguaia and Tocantins Rivers meet, known as “The Parrot’s Beak,” men were working in slave-like conditions gathering nuts or clear-cutting land, forced to pay their employers for shelter and provisions. If the PC do B could earn the trust of the riverfolk, then the ground would be fertile for a revolutionary movement, a blend of Mao’s People’s Uprising and Che’s foco.
Oswaldo was among the first radicals to arrive in the Araguaia region in 1966, sustaining himself as a prospector and a shellfish gatherer, quickly befriending the locals. By 1969, he knew the topography, plants, animals and customs of the region. More radicals joined him, arriving on the backs of pickups on the dusty Trans-Amazonian, teachers, doctors and lawyers who could offer the riverfolk support they weren’t getting from the government. The river and forest were a testament to the abundance of nature, to the limitations of capital. In commune with the riverfolk there, they could demonstrate a new way of life, a new way forward for Brazil.
Soon almost 80 self-fashioned guerrillas were living in the region, known to the locals as Paulistas, though few of them were from São Paulo. Fifteen of the guerrillas were women. Dinalva Oliveria Texeira, a geology student from Bahia, arrived in 1970 and earned a reputation among the locals as a gifted midwife—and among the guerrillas as a talented sharpshooter. She soon rose to the rank of deputy commander, leading literacy programs and medical clinics and guiding mothers through stormy childbirths. One young man, Guilherme Gomes Lund, wrote a letter to his parents explaining his decision to leave for the Amazon.
It is necessary to seriously face the question of where to devote our lives. It is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to cope with the state of things in this country. There is no prospect for most, and much less for me, as I cannot just expect to remain unaware of what’s happening.
With all due respect, I’m afraid you don’t understand the grandeur of the path I’m going to take. I’m afraid you don’t understand the nobility of my ideals….
2. Seek the element of surprise by all means.
Every evening at 9 p.m., the Paulistas huddled around shortwave radios to hear Radio Tirana live from Albania, a crackling transmission from the newly communist capital, beamed across the Atlantic to their wet, leafy enclave, buoying their conviction that revolution was dawning around the world.
If the imperialists could be pushed out of Havana or Hanoi or Tirana, they could be expelled from Brasília. What the Paulistas lacked in numbers or firepower, they could overcome with the element of surprise. For months, the Paulistas had been helping the villagers with abscessed teeth and stubborn infections, convening one-room school houses, representing farmers in disputes.
In many ways, the services they provided resembled those offered by the international NGOs that, decades later, Jair Bolsonaro—a former Army paratrooper—would malign as communist infiltrators.
In return, the riverfolk fed and clothed the Paulistas, showed them which plants were medicinal and which were poisonous, helped them find their way through the forest when they inevitably lost their trails.
As part of Oswaldo’s regimen for fresh recruits, the Paulistas cut escape routes from village to village and established waypoints to store ammunition, machetes and other provisions. Oswaldo and Dina trained their soldiers in map reading, target practice and improvised demolition. They marched blindfolded recruits 200 meters into the forest and expected them to lead the way back to base without assistance. They broke into federal police trucks to seize new rifles.
The most important mission was to internalize the ideals of the movement until you could feel the revolution in your spine. The ultimate element of surprise would be the strength of their resolve, their connection to the land. To its people. The guerrillas would need all the help they could get once the shooting began.
3. Keep your body, weapons and equipment in good condition.
On a breezy morning in 1970, in Marabá, Pará, a small town on the banks of the Tocantins River, 12 Special Forces paratroopers dropped from 7,000 feet over the water. The leader unfurled a Brazilian flag, fluttering like a leaf, as the squad stuck their landing on a white sandbar. At last the flag was relayed to the city square, where a public school student raised the colors at the pavilion to the sound of the national anthem.
On the surface, the display of military coordination was intended to instill national pride among the riverfolk, but the real mission was to intimidate the rebels operating nearby, allegedly calling themselves the the Araguaia Guerrilla Force.
Central Command had little idea of the size or scope of the movement, only that guerrillas were in routine radio communication with communist forces in Albania. Whoever was guiding them was giving good advice. The rebels had established themselves in a gray operational area between the Amazon and Planalto military jurisdictions, a situation that was already causing communications headaches among officers.
Better safe than sorry. The military mobilized two infantry battalions, ordered the Air Force to conduct a napalm sweep of the nearby mountains, then dispatched soldiers to confirm they had eliminated the threat.
So much for the element of surprise.
Yet… despite days of searching the incinerated forest, there were no traces of the guerrillas in the mountains. The fresh conscripts struggled to keep their feet dry, their heads clear, their weapons in working order. In torrential downpours, radio communications fizzled. Trucks lurched in the mud. Rifles jammed. Foodstuffs were swarmed by army ants, stolen by monkeys who fled effortlessly through the canopy.
Central Command sent plastic wrap. The soldiers wrapped rations, rifles and feet in plastic. Malaria and dysentery were rampant. On long marches or late night hunts, the soldiers swallowed methamphetamine pills to keep awake like jungle cats.
The chaos and cross fire and indiscriminate bombing wore thin on the riverfolk. Eighteen-hour reconnaissance missions proved only that locals were tipping off the enemy. In the first few months, soldiers managed to eliminate 15 guerrillas, but more often, the troops were shooting at each other through the trees.
Grenades were useless. Sometimes they exploded in a rumble that silenced the jungle for a minute that felt like eternity. Just as often, they were duds, spoiled in the rain.
During the dry season of 1972, two young brothers from a nearby village were hunting when they spotted a strange fruit on the forest floor. How could they know not to touch it? The explosion killed the younger brother before he heard the sound. When the older brother woke up in the hospital, he was missing an arm.
Army officers made a promise that they would not keep. The boy didn’t need to worry; he’d be taken care of for the rest of his life.
4. Learn to endure the discomfort and fatigue without complaint and be moderate in your needs.
At Central Command, the top brass lit cigarettes, examined aerial photography, debated whether to retreat and let the resistance flame out.
“We cannot let go of this war,” declared one general.
Feeding battalions into the jungle only fed the resistance. The advantage of the guerrillas was their proximity to the land and its people. The Army needed the same. In the tradition of Pedro Teixeira, the original Conqueror of the Amazon who wrested much of the rainforest from Spain with the support of Indigenous guides, the armed forces needed to enlist those who knew the jungle best. This would need to be a top secret operation of Special Forces units trained in the art of jungle warfare.
In the jungle, predators relied on camouflage. Dressed in plain clothes, Special Forces agents embedded themselves in open-air markets and fishing ports, posing as vendors and water taxistas, selling fruit and ferrying passengers, always listening for names.
To pinpoint their prey, the agents needed guides. They offered cash bounties, but locals were reluctant to cooperate. The Paulistas were good kids. Oswaldo taught them to work hard. Dina had helped deliver more babies than some of the oldest grandmothers on the river.
Ta bom. OK. If someone didn’t want to cooperate, there was another way. The other way was complicated. Painful. Choose the simple way. Choose money.
To this day, when the government needs to get things done in the Amazon—a highway, a hydroelectric dam, a stadium— it relies on cash payments before resorting to other means.
5. Be the hunter, not the hunted.
“After torturing me with electricity and plunging my head into a water tank until I could no longer breathe, they threw me into a pit of garbage that was filled with snakes and scorpions and held me there for more than a week,” recalled one suspected guerrilla in an interview in Xambioá, a garrison town where the Brazilian Armed Forces had a base. “When they finally pulled me out for questioning, they removed the head of a man from a burlap bag and asked if I knew him.”
The Paulistas had prepared themselves for interrogations. They were unprepared to see their riverfolk comrades treated as collaborators: captured, tortured, executed.
Over the years, the Paulistas had become part of the regional folklore. Oswaldo was fabled to be invisible. Dina never missed a shot. By 1974, Oswaldo and Dina were the most wanted people in the Amazon, and Special Forces were closing in. It was one thing to exchange gunfire with 18-year-old privates on their first deployment, another thing entirely to be strafed by Yankee helicopters.
When at last Oswaldo was captured, he was beheaded and strung upside down from a chopper for all to see.
When Dina was clipped by machine gun fire, she died pregnant with her first child.
6. Always fight with intelligence and be the most cunning.
The cleanup operation commenced in the dry season of 1975. By then, more than 60 guerrillas and countless riverfolk had been disappeared. The few rebels who had escaped through the forest were hunted down before the rains returned.
There was much to burn before the rains came. Guerrilla encampments and supply posts. The interrogation house. The bodies of the dead, some shot more than 100 times, shoveled from shallow graves and helicoptered to a central fire pit, pilots in gas masks to shield against the stench of decomposition. Heaped upon a pile of gasoline soaked tires, the evidence dissipated into a cloud of thick black smoke.
By order of the generals, the region would be cleansed. Nobody could know that Brazil had needed military force to quell a rebellion within its own borders. In time, Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari would unearth many of the details in his authoritative, five-volume history of the dictatorship, and the Resistance Memorial of São Paulo would curate an archive of guerrilla profiles and oral histories of the conflict. But historians and activists are still searching for answers and seeking justice.
In a statement to the National Truth Commission in 2014, former Colonel Paulo Malhães described the exactitude of the cover-up. “Dig all you want,” he said. “You’ll never find anyone.”
Malhães and his men had perfected their technique. Severing the fingers of the dead. Extracting their dental arches. Bagging remains with weighted stones, bellies slit open to prevent anyone from bloating to the surface of the river.
The armed forces never confirmed or denied the colonel’s testimony. When Lula was elected president in 2002, many on the left hoped that he would seek justice for those tortured, killed, or disappeared during the dictatorship. Families deserved to know where their sons and daughters were buried. Lula demurred. For decades, he had been accused of being too radical. Now that he was in power, any hope of building a governing coalition would require military cooperation.
In the decades after the Araguaia Guerrilla War, Brazil’s generals would look across South America and feel validated. Communist uprisings in the Colombian and Peruvian Amazon proved that malcontents in the jungle could sow the seeds of civil war. The FARC rebels who caused so much trouble for Bogotá would one day supply Brazil’s homegrown drug syndicates with cocaine, military-grade hardware and tactical expertise. Determined not to repeat the mistakes of its neighbors, Brazil’s military dictatorship poured resources into fortifying the Amazon. Today, it remains the center of gravity for the Brazilian armed forces, with tanks, patrol boats and Toucan fighter jets ready to contain whatever chaos might emerge from the rainforest.
By the early twenty-first century, the city of Manaus had mushroomed into a city of two million people surrounded by two million miles of rainforest. More than 6,000 Brazilian soldiers and more than 500 foreign officers have trained at the Center for Jungle Warfare, which remains a patch of thick forest in the middle of the city, tucked behind a razor-wire fence on a boulevard between the historic center and a chic new beachfront park, built in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in the fledgling democracy of Brazil.
Yet even as the country emerged on the world stage, national politics roiled the Amazon. Lula was under the microscope of a dubious corruption investigation and would soon be in jail. His handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, an urban guerrilla herself tortured at the hands of the dictatorship, faced an impeachment vote. Congressman Bolsonaro, with his eye on the presidency, cast his vote for impeachment in honor of the military leadership of 1964. Within two years, he would be raising hell on the campaign trail in the Amazon, and within days after his election, the rainforest would be burning.
But not yet. None of that would spoil the Olympics, the Brazilian future brought to life in flame. Over the first half of 2016,when the Olympic torch was on its way to Manaus, it traveled through 300 Brazilian cities in 100 days in a relay from the northeastern coast to the banks of the Amazon. In the Amazon, even animals were involved in the torch relay, trained to demonstrate Brazil’s harmony among humans, animal and the jungle.
On the day the torch arrived in Manaus, the sky was hot and hazy. On the river, the torch was symbolically passed to a river dolphin, bribed with a fish to rise from the water. News reporters covered the menagerie of local celebrities, politicians and athletes carrying the white torch through a barricaded path flanked by fans and protesters. Past the Teatro Amazonas. Along the city’s freshly paved avenues, past new malls, past gleaming hotels, past the Arena da Amazônia, a soccer stadium built in the shape of an indigenous basket.
The capstone event of the Manaus torch relay was a ceremony at the Center for Jungle Warfare, which these days doubles as a zoo for the pleasure and enrichment of civilians. The animals on display have been seized during anti-poaching operations. Caiman alligators. Ocelots, sloths and coatimundis. An anaconda.
A cloudy tank of prehistoric catfish. Beetles and butterflies. The soldier-caretakers take pride in all the animals, but especially the painted jaguars, who pace in cages and concrete pits.
At the entrance of every jungle battalion in the country is a statue: soldier and jaguar, fighting in tandem, power, ferocity, unity. For the soldiers, the jaguars are reminders of the dark heart of man, of the forest they are sworn to protect. Every battalion raises a jaguar mascot, an orphaned, sick or injured cub, bottle-fed and bathed until it becomes playful as a kitten.
Several hundred guests filled the Jungle Warfare Center for this grand photo opportunity: an eight-year-old jaguar, Juma, pride of the battalion, sitting nobly alongside the Olympic torch.
In the crowded courtyard, the final relay runner knelt with the torch. Juma had been fed and tranquilized in advance. She yawned in her chains, held patiently by her trainers. Later, investigators found that she had not been authorized to participate.
Experts speculated that the sensory overload of the ceremony was too much for Juma to process. Applause. Hundreds of strange eyes. The petrol odor of the torch. A jaguar, born for isolation, invisibility, its camouflage perfect from the jungle to the Pantanal, forced to sit prone on hot concrete under the incessant clicks of cameras, the eyes of elites recording on their smartphones.
The speeches roused as planned. At the conclusion of the program, as attendees filed out from their seats, the handlers urged Juma from her resting place. On the way back to the cage, she must have seen, heard or smelled danger. Or opportunity.
With a twist of her neck, Juma slipped her leash. Before the handlers could believe their eyes, she was loose. The veterinarian fired a tranquilizer gun. No effect. Another dart. Still nothing.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline jolt of freedom. The scent of open river over the razor wire. Juma seemed not to recognize her men.
The soldiers said she pounced. A pistol shot. Commanders shouting blame. The soldiers said there was no choice. It was us or the jaguar.
Chris Feliciano Arnold is the author of The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon. His reporting from Brazil has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, Folha de S. Paulo and more. He is the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California.