BRASILIA (Reuters) - In Brazil, groups of armed agents fly around the country by helicopter, pounding on doors and instilling fear in the hearts of those who break the law.
They're not the police - they're from the tax agency.
The Federal Revenue Service, which has gained global renown for its tough and creative tactics, will be one of the most important keys to Brazil's economic prospects in 2012. President Dilma Rousseff is counting on the agency's tax-collecting prowess to help her government meet ambitious budget targets without smothering the country's suddenly brittle economy.
The agency, known as "The Lion" for its official emblem as well as its ferocious pursuit of tax dodgers, deploys everything from gun-toting operatives to meters on beer kegs in breweries to ensure that individuals and companies fully declare, and pay, their share to the government.
Recent operations have had names like "Black Panther" and "Delta" that are usually more associated with army special forces. The agency even uses helicopters to size up millionaires' homes and make sure they are consistent with their tax returns.
No one is immune: Rousseff herself briefly came under scrutiny in 2009, when she was a minister in the previous government, because of what she said was an innocent mistake on her tax return.
The agency's methods, as well as high and extremely complex taxes, have prompted grumbling among some Brazilians. They point to woeful infrastructure, education and other decrepit public services and say they are not getting nearly enough in return for the cash they contribute.
But others express admiration for a rare success story of tax collection in Latin America, a region where evasion often rivals soccer as a favorite pastime.
"When it comes to collecting taxes, Brazilians are really good. They are probably some of the best in the world," said Italo Lombardi, an analyst with Standard Chartered in New York.
Rousseff will need every bit of the agency's skill in what is proving to be a surprisingly tough year for Brazil's economy.
Her government has committed to a key budget goal known as the primary budget surplus - revenues minus expenditures except debt payments - of about 139 billion reais ($72 billion) this year.
The target is closely watched by investors as a sign of whether the government is pumping too much money into the economy. Falling short of the target could signal higher inflation, which in turn could jeopardize Rousseff's entire agenda, including her drive to lower interest rates.
There are two ways to balance a budget, of course, and Rousseff can meet the target in part by limiting spending. But officials say she is wary of cutting too much, for fear of causing damage to an economy that has been stagnant since the middle of last year. In fact, Rousseff has announced some new tax cuts to try to revive activity.
That means that the burden of hitting the budget goal will depend primarily on another stellar performance by the Federal Revenue Service, which managed to increase tax collection by 10.1 percent last year, when the economy grew just 2.7 percent.
So far, so good. In the first three months of the year, the government was able to save nearly a third of its primary surplus target for the year. Tax revenues rose more than 7 percent compared to the same period in 2011.
One of the secrets behind such performance, officials say, is the agency's willingness to ignore social status and political connections in a country where both often grant the elite a degree of protection in courts and elsewhere.
In April, local media reported that police seized a sports car owned by Luis Fabiano - a soccer star for the popular Sao Paulo club. Fabiano, a former member of Brazil's national team, denied the authorities' allegation that he had failed to pay taxes on the Audi, which is worth nearly half a million reais.
"The role of the tax authority is to let taxpayers know that we are keeping an eye on them and that they should do the right thing," Caio Candido, the agency's undersecretary for inspection, said in an interview.
The agents themselves also have a good record of doing the right thing. Corruption cases are few and far between, a sharp contrast with the deluge of charges against officials in the police and other public institutions.
Officials from Chile, Tanzania and even China have come to Brazil to study what makes the agency so effective.
Several Latin American countries such as Mexico and Paraguay are believed to lose as much as half of potential tax revenues to evasion and lax enforcement. By contrast, evasion in Brazil is thought to be around 16 percent of potential income, according to the Tax Planning Institute, a private Brazil-based group.
That rate is high when compared to some northern European countries, experts say, but much better than that of many emerging market peers.
Average tax evasion in Brazil from 2000-2009 was below that of China, India, Russia and South Africa - Brazil's fellow members of the BRICS group of large emerging markets - according to data from Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based research group that advocates financial transparency.
More than 25 million Brazilians declare income tax. That is less than a quarter of the economically active population because most Brazilians make less than the $8,300 a year, the level at which people have to start paying income tax.
The high-profile cases involving individuals grab the headlines, but the biggest money comes from closely monitoring companies, which make up more than half of Brazil's tax revenue.
Here, technology and manpower play large roles. Teams of accountants and legal experts are deployed to monitor the books of companies year-round. Everardo Maciel, who helped modernize the tax agency in the 1990s, said the authority was one of the first in the world to fully embrace the Internet as a tool.
The agency has about 12,000 agents across Brazil and their tasks range from monitoring the tax receipts of millionaires to hunting for the smugglers of everything from cocaine to Chinese toys along its border.
The government has also managed to instill habits among Brazilians that help prevent evasion.
Cashiers at supermarkets and other retail outlets in big Brazilian cities constantly ask their customers: "Do you want your CPF on the receipt?" By consenting to enter their CPF, which is a personal tax identification number, consumers get a tax refund - and the government gets data that allows officials to better track a company's sales.
Such measures helped the government demand a record 109 billion reais in unpaid taxes from individuals and companies last year. Some of those accused of underpaying are global giants like iron-ore miner Vale (VALE5.SA), which is partly owned by the government.
Most tax cases take years to be resolved in courts, but the tax agency was able to secure about 18 billion reais in back payments last year alone.
Some Brazilians see a less virtuous explanation for the tax agency's efficiency - what they describe as their government's all but insatiable appetite for money.
Tax revenues equal to about 35 percent of the country's gross domestic product, well above emerging-market peers and more in line with European countries. But the services offered in return are hardly Europe-like, as Brazil's roads, schools and police remain under-resourced even by Latin American standards.
Sixty-five percent of Brazilians disapprove of the government's tax policies, according to a CNI-Ibope poll released in April. Brazilian vent their anger on websites with names that, translated into English, mean "timetoact.com" or "bigtaxholiday.com."
"Tax collection in this country is very high, but why is the application of that money not as efficient as collection?" said Gilberto Luiz do Amaral, head of studies at the Tax Planning Institute.
Amaral is the creator of the "taxmeter," a website with real-time projections on how much the government is collecting, juxtaposed with headlines like "This could buy 6 million ambulances."
Taxes are not only high but complex. Brazil ranks 150th out of 183 countries in terms of ease of paying taxes, according to the World Bank's Doing Business ranking. It takes nearly seven times longer for companies to prepare their taxes in Brazil than the average elsewhere in Latin America, the bank says.
The marginal tax rate for companies in Brazil averages about 34 percent. Business owners often complain they are charged twice and sometimes even three times the same tax by municipalities and states.
Tax laws are complicated and fast-changing. Private lawyers estimate a new tax rule is created about every seven weeks.
Rousseff says she gets the message. She has vowed to improve the quality of spending and seek tax cuts.
"The government needs to use public resources efficiently and with honesty," Rousseff said in a televised address last week, "so that people feel they are getting a good return for their taxes."
($1 = 1.9261 reais)
Editing by Brian Winter, Kieran Murray and Mohammad Zargham