Under pressure, Brazil intensifies search for British journalist and indigenous leader missing in Amazon

Atalaia do Norte, Brazil — Brazilian authorities began using helicopters on Wednesday to search a remote area of ​​the Amazon rainforest for a British journalist and Indigenous leader missing more than three days. Amazonas State Civil Police also said they identified a suspect, who was arrested for allegedly carrying a firearm without a license, which is common practice in the region.

General Carlos Alberto Mansur, the state’s public security secretary, later said officials had no concrete evidence to link the man to the disappearances, however.

“We are looking for a possible link, but so far we have nothing,” Mansur told a news conference. The suspect, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as “Pelado”, remained in custody, he said.

Police have interviewed five other people since the start of the investigation, but no arrests related to the disappearances have been made, authorities said in their first joint public address.

The journalist Dom Phillips, who regularly collaborated with the British newspaper The Guardianand Bruno Araújo Pereira, an employee of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency with extensive experience in the region, were last seen Sunday morning in the community of Sao Rafael, in the indigenous territory of the Javari Valley.

Dom Phillips missing
Supporters hold a vigil outside the Brazilian Embassy in London for Dom Phillips and Bruno Araujo Pereira, British journalist and Indigenous Affairs official missing in the Amazon, June 9, 2022.

Victoria Jones/PA Images/Getty


Both men had been threatened on Saturday when a small group of men traveled by river to the edge of Indigenous territory and brandished firearms during a patrol led by Univaja, which is a local Aboriginal association. Association president Paulo Marubo previously told The Associated Press that Phillips photographed the men at the time and that Pelado was one of them.

Phillips and Pereira were returning by boat to the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived.

Indigenous leaders on the ground, family members and peers of Pereira and Phillips have expressed concern that search efforts by authorities have been slow to get off the ground and remain insufficient.

A Brazilian federal court on Wednesday issued an order ordering authorities to provide helicopters and more boats, after Univaja and the federal public defender’s office filed a request. During an evening press conference, the federal police showed several images and videos of the area taken earlier in the day from a helicopter.

In her ruling, Judge Jaiza Maria Pinto noted that she had ordered the Indigenous Affairs agency to maintain protections in the area after a 2019 case filed by Univaja documented multiple attacks by criminals. Despite this order, she said, the territory “has been kept in a situation of weak protection and surveillance”.

The Indigenous Affairs Agency sacked one of its three top directors on Wednesday. The agency said the decision was made in May and was unrelated to the case.

Meanwhile, an employee of the Indigenous Affairs Agency, Gustavo da Cruz, announced to Congress a 24-hour strike for June 13. “If public service was a safe career, today it is a career of fear, death, violence and threats,” da Cruz told lawmakers.

There have been repeated gunfights between hunters, fishers and security officials in the area, which has the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted Indigenous people. It is also an important route for cocaine produced on the Peruvian side of the border and then smuggled into Brazil to supply local towns or for shipment to Europe.

Federal police said Wednesday that 250 people from the army, navy, police and fire departments had joined the search.

Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has been working on a book on Amazon preservation with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. His wife, Alessandra Sampaio, recorded a video imploring the government and authorities to step up search efforts.

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Veteran British foreign correspondent Dom Phillips talks to two indigenous men in Aldeia Maloca Papia, Roraima state, Brazil, November 16, 2019.

JOAO LAET/AFP/Getty


“We still have some hope to find them. Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, they have to be found,” she said in the video posted on Twitter.

Scientists, artists, journalists and football stars – including the legendary Pelé – joined his call, posting messages on social media calling on authorities to step up research efforts.

Pereira has long operated in the Javari Valley for Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Agency. He oversaw their regional office and the coordination of isolated indigenous groups before going on leave. For years he received threats from illegal fishermen and poachers.

On Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro drew criticism by describing the two men’s work as an “adventure”.

“Really, just two people in a boat in a completely wild area like this is not a recommended adventure. Anything can happen. It could be an accident, they could have been killed,” he said. he said in an interview with the TV channel. SBT. “We hope and ask God that they will be found soon. The armed forces are working hard.”

Journalists working for regional media in the Amazon have been murdered in recent years, although there have been no such cases among journalists from domestic or foreign media. However, several threats have been reported and the press has limited access to several areas dominated by criminal activity, including illegal mining, land grabbing and drug trafficking.

In September 2019, an employee of the indigenous affairs agency was shot dead in Tabatinga, the largest town in the region. The crime was never solved.

In 2017, British citizen Emma Kelty was killed while trying to kayak along the Amazon. The 43-year-old Londoner disappeared after posting comments on social media sharing her fear of being robbed or murdered in a remote jungle in northern Brazil that is used by drug traffickers and pirates.

In the same year, Brazilian prosecutors investigated reports that gold diggers may have members killed from a so-called uncontacted tribe in the Amazon.

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