ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil (AP) — Brazilian authorities began using helicopters to search a remote area of the Amazon rainforest in search of a British journalist and indigenous official who had been missing for more than three days.
Civil police in Amazonas state also said on Wednesday they had identified a suspect, who had been arrested for allegedly carrying an unlicensed firearm, which is common in the region. But General Carlos Alberto Mansur, the secretary of state for public security, later said officials had no concrete evidence linking the man to the disappearances.
“We are looking for a possible link, but for now we have nothing,” Mansur said at a press conference. The suspect, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, aka “Pelado,” remained in custody, he said.
Police have questioned five others since the investigation began, but no arrests have been made in connection with the disappearances, authorities said in their first joint public speech.
Journalist Dom Phillips, a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper, and Bruno Araújo Pereira, a Brazilian agency for indigenous affairs with extensive experience in the region, were last seen in the Sao Rafael community, in the javari valley. Native territory.
The two had been threatened on Saturday when a small group of men traveled by river to the border of the indigenous territory and brandished firearms at a patrol belonging to Univaja, a local association of indigenous peoples. The association’s president, Paulo Marubo, previously told the Associated Press that Phillips was photographing the men at the time, and Pelado was one of them.
Phillips and Pereira returned by boat to the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived.
Indigenous leaders on the ground, relatives and peers of Pereira and Phillips have expressed concern that the authorities’ searches have started slowly and remain inadequate.
In London, Phillips’ family and supporters held a vigil outside the Brazilian embassy, urging officials to explain why it took so long for the search to begin.
“We had to come this morning to ask the question, where is Dom Phillips? Where is Bruno Pereira?” Phillips’ sister, Sian, told reporters. “We’re here to explain why it took them so long to start looking for my brother and Bruno. We want the search to continue.”
A Brazilian federal court on Wednesday ordered authorities to provide helicopters and more boats after Univaja and the federal public defender’s office filed a request. At an evening press conference, federal police showed multiple images and videos of the area taken from a helicopter earlier that day.
In her decision, Judge Jaiza Maria Pinto noted that she ordered the Indigenous Affairs Bureau to protect the region after a case filed by Univaja in 2019 reported multiple attacks by criminals. Despite that order, she said, the area “has been kept in a situation of low protection and surveillance.”
The Bureau of Indigenous Affairs fired one of its top three executives on Wednesday. The agency said the decision was made in May and had nothing to do with the case.
Meanwhile, an Indigenous Affairs Bureau official, Gustavo da Cruz, announced a 24-hour strike in Congress for June 13. “If civil servants were a safe career, today it is a career of fear, death, violence and threats,” da Cruz told lawmakers.
There have been repeated firefights between hunters, fishermen and official security agents in the area, which is home to the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted indigenous peoples. It is also a major route for cocaine produced on the Peruvian side of the border and then smuggled into Brazil to supply local towns or to be shipped to Europe.
Federal police said on Wednesday that 250 people from the army, navy, police and firefighters had joined the search.
Phillips, 57, has been reporting from Brazil for more than a decade and has been working on a book on Amazon conservation with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. His wife, Alessandra Sampaio, recorded a video in which he pleaded with the government and authorities to intensify the search.
“We still have some hope of finding them. Even if I don’t find the love of my life alive, they need to be found,” she said in the video on Twitter.
Scientists, artists, journalists and football stars – including the legendary Pele – joined her call, posting messages on social media urging authorities to step up search efforts.
Pereira has long been operating in the Javari Valley for the Brazilian Bureau of Indigenous Affairs. He oversaw their regional office and the coordination of isolated indigenous groups before going on leave. For years he was threatened by illegal fishermen and poachers.
On Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro was criticized for describing the two men’s work as an “adventure.”
“Really, two people in a boat in such a completely wild area is not a recommended adventure. Everything is possible. It could be an accident, it could be that they died,” he said in an interview with television channel SBT. “We hope and ask God that they are found soon. The armed forces are hard at work.”
Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro.