Some 450 Brazilian and foreign companies, ranging from makers of machine guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers to “target detection” technology and surveillance drones, are on display at the four-day LAAD defense and security expo (Mauro Pimentel)

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – With its high murder rate and huge armed forces, Brazil has long been in the cross-hairs of foreign weapons makers. Now they have a powerful champion: pro-gun President Jair Bolsonaro.

The right-wing former army captain, who relaxed gun ownership laws soon after taking power in January, has raised hopes among foreign firms that his next move will be easing investment restrictions on Brazil’s 200 billion reais ($55 billion) defense sector.

“For many, many years nothing moved here for us and now there’s really hope and optimism that this will change in the near future,” Martin Neujahr of Swiss company RUAG Ammotec told AFP as he stood next to a bench displaying rows of gleaming high-precision bullets at a major defense expo in Rio de Janeiro this week.

Now, Neujahr said, the firm was seeing strong interest from Brazilian police forces in its “specialized products” that include subsonic sniper bullets designed to suppress noise and make it harder to locate a shooter.

Some 450 Brazilian and foreign companies, ranging from makers of machine guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers to “target detection” technology and surveillance drones, are on display at the four-day LAAD defense and security expo.

Vice-President Hamilton Mourao, Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, Justice Minister Sergio Moro and Rio de Janeiro state Governor Wilson Witzel attended Tuesday’s opening, underscoring the high-level support for an industry Brazilian leaders have been trying to liberalize for years.

“Since the president’s election, he has advocated for continuing opening up the market to foreign investment,” said Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute think tank in Rio.

“The armed forces, however, have been more reluctant and defend the strategic importance of national champions”, Muggah added, referring to Brazilian gun maker Taurus and ammunition producer CBC, which dominate their respective markets.

Foreign interest in Brazil’s arms sector is not surprising — rampant violent crime in the country of 209 million people and a military estimated by Global Firepower to total more than 1.6 million personnel means a lot of demand for weapons and ammunition.

But measures protecting local manufacturers from competition, including tax breaks and subsidies, have long frustrated their access.

Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, signaled earlier this year the government was studying ways to change that.

Participants at the expo, including police officers and gun club members, were unequivocal about their desire for greater access to foreign-made arms, which they consider to be higher quality than Made in Brazil products.

“I love firearms,” Edgar Silva, an amateur shooter, told AFP as he admired handguns made by German company Walther.

“I came to see the new products. I hope that the Brazilian market will finally open and that all good Brazilian citizens will have the right to own and carry weapons.”

– ‘Huge market’ –

Despite being on the sidelines of wars, Brazil has long been a significant maker of weapons for countries that want to fight.

Brazil is the third-largest exporter of small arms and ammunition in the world, said Muggah, with annual sales topping $500 million.

And it accounted for 27 percent of South American arms imports from 2014 to 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Both foreign and domestic arms makers are hoping that Bolsonaro’s rise to power will translate into looser laws and greater government spending in the sector. Brazil’s defense budget was around $30 billion in 2018.

“Yes, yes and yes,” a representative for a European handgun maker told AFP enthusiastically when asked if Bolsonaro’s election was good for business.

“Brazil is extremely important for us,” he added, as burly men in dark suits cocked and aimed nine-millimeter pistols at imaginary targets.

“President Jair Bolsonaro is a president who understands the importance of having strong defense and proper public safety in the country … because of this, the market has been warming up these last few months,” said Luiz Monteiro, institutional relations director for Condor Non-Lethal Technologies.

Drone maker Aeronautics Group, one of more than a dozen Israeli companies at the expo, also hopes closer ties between Brazil and Israel will improve its chances.

“We believe it’s a good opportunity to be here,” said Dany Eshchar, deputy chief executive for marketing and sales, as Bolsonaro wrapped up a three-day visit to Israel.

“It’s a huge market for us — we consider Brazil as the North America of Latin America.”

Disclaimer: Validity of the above story is for 7 Days from original date of publishing. Source: AFP.