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Brazil police questioning suspect over disappearance of Amazon explorers

Local Indigenous activists said the pair received threats last week for their work in the remote region.

British journalist Dom Phillips, right, and a Yanomami Indigenous man are seen at Maloca Papiu village, Roraima state, Brazil, on November 2019.
British journalist Dom Phillips, right, and a Yanomami Indigenous man are seen at Maloca Papiu village, Roraima state, Brazil, on November 2019.
Image: Joao Laet

Updated Jun 8th 2022, 9:15 PM

BRAZILIAN POLICE ARE questioning a suspect in the disappearance of a British journalist and an indigenous affairs official who went missing in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest more than three days ago.

Civil police in Amazonas state identified the suspect as 41-year-old Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, who was arrested for allegedly carrying a firearm without a permit, which is common practice in the region.

Police did not clarify why he was being treated as a suspect.

Authorities have questioned four other people since the investigation started, according to a separate statement from the state’s public security secretariat. It said no arrest related to the disappearances had yet been made.

Dom Phillips, who has been a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper, and Bruno Araujo Pereira, an employee of the Brazilian indigenous affairs agency with extensive experience in the region, were last seen early on Sunday in the Sao Rafael community, according to the Univaja association of people in the Vale do Javari indigenous territory.

The two had been threatened on Saturday when a small group of men travelled by river to the indigenous territory’s boundary and brandished firearms at a Univaja patrol, the association’s president, Paulo Marubo, previously told The Associated Press.

Phillips photographed the men at the time and the man known as Pelado was one of them, Marubo said.

The two men were returning by boat to the nearby city of Atalaia do Norte on Sunday morning, but never arrived.

Indigenous leaders on the ground, family members and peers of Pereira and Phillips have expressed concern that authorities’ search efforts were slow to start, and remain insufficient.

“The Brazilian state says it has deployed a great task force in the region. This is not true,” Eliesio Marubo, Univaja’s legal advisor, said on Tuesday.

“They promised that, today, they would send a helicopter to fly over the area and it also didn’t happen. Now it is 4pm, it was supposed to arrive at 2pm, and until now nothing. The fact is that we continue the search alone.”

A federal court today ordered that authorities provide helicopters and more boats, after Univaja and the federal public defender’s office filed a request.

The army’s Amazon division said in a statement on Tuesday evening that it had launched its first search and rescue operations on Monday afternoon — a day-and-a-half after the pair went missing — and that 150 members of the military had since joined the operations. A helicopter was also on its way, but had not yet reached the area.

Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has been working on a book about preservation of the Amazon with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

Pereira has long operated in Javari Valley for the Brazilian 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.

The Javari Valley region has experienced repeated shootouts between hunters, fishermen and official security agents in the area, which has the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted indigenous people.

It is also a major route for cocaine produced on the Peruvian side of the border, then smuggled into Brazil to supply local cities or to be shipped to Europe.

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

‘Anguished’ wait

The men’s families urged the authorities to act fast.

Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, recorded a video pleading with the government and authorities to intensify search efforts.

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

“Time is a key factor in rescue operations, particularly if they are injured,” Pereira’s family said in a statement.

It said his partner, three children and other relatives were in “anguish.”

Phillips’s sister Sian posted a video message online, fighting back tears.

“We are really worried about him and urge the authorities in Brazil to do all they can,” she said. “Every minute counts.”

A group of about 40 reporters and friends of Phillips appealed to Brazilian authorities in a letter published in O Globo newspaper to expand the search effort.

In addition, 11 press organizations requested an emergency meeting with the justice minister and other high-level officials to get a progress report on the hunt.

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Phillips, who is based in the city of Salvador, had previously accompanied Pereira in 2018 to the Javari Valley for a story in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, where he was a regular contributor.

The 85,000-square-kilometer (33,000-square-mile) reservation is home to around 6,300 Indigenous people from 26 groups, including 19 with virtually no contact with the outside world.

FUNAI’s base there, set up to protect Indigenous inhabitants, has come under attack several times in recent years.

In 2019, a FUNAI officer there was shot dead.

The region has seen a surge of illegal mining, logging and poaching in recent years, and its remoteness makes it a haven for drug traffickers, said Fiona Watson, research director at Indigenous rights group Survival International.

“You’re talking about dense tropical forest,” she told AFP.

“The operation to try and locate Bruno and Dom is immensely challenging.”

Bolsonaro response criticized

President Jair Bolsonaro drew criticism for appearing to blame the missing men, both of whom have extensive experience in the Amazon rainforest basin.

“Two people in a boat in a region like that, completely wild – it’s an unadvisable adventure. Anything can happen,” Bolsonaro said.

“Maybe there was an accident, maybe they were executed.”

The far-right president has faced accusations of fueling invasions of Indigenous lands in the Amazon with his pro-mining and pro-agribusiness policies.

Pereira, an expert currently on leave from Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency FUNAI, has spent much of his career fighting such invasions – making him a target of frequent threats.

With reporting from © AFP 2022

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