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 Friday, 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 who exactly is flying through the airspace, whether commercial aircraft or drug dealers. It will also enable Brazilian 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," Minister of Defense Geraldo Quintao said on Thursday during a ceremony here inaugurating the system, which was officially put into operation on Friday. "It transcends the simple unveiling of a government project."
The system includes a network of some 900 strategically placed listening posts scattered on the ground all over the Amazon. But its backbone consists of 19 fixed radar stations, five airborne early warning jets and three remote sensoring aircraft, all of which will feed information via satellite to command centers.
"Because this is a radar system, we will be able to operate day and night, rain or shine," said Gen. Teomar Fonseca Quirico, the project director, making a contrast with satellites. From a height of 33,000 feet and a distance of up to 125 miles away, 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 radar 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 the worsening of the war against guerrillas in Colombia, the military and drug interdiction aspects of the project have become more important.
The Brazilian government has said it is willing to share the intelligence gleaned by the radar system 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 on Friday, where he said he would reiterate that offer and discuss how it might be carried out.
"Brazil is not selfish," said Gen. Alberto Cardoso, the government's national security adviser.
It is less clear, though, to what degree Brazil intends to share information generated by the radar system with the United States. In remarks to reporters after the inauguration, Quirico said that as of now, the intelligence-sharing offer applies "only to Amazon countries."
The radar system is being financed largely with a loan from the U.S. Import-Export Bank, with some additional funds supplied by Sweden. The contract for the construction of the system was awarded to an American company, Raytheon, after intense lobbying by the United States. That led to speculation in the Brazilian press that the radar is really part of an U.S. plot to seize control of the Amazon and its riches.