Brazilian police arrest man in hunt for missing British journalist Dom Phillips in Amazon rainforest
Brazilian police have arrested a 41-year-old man in connection with the disappearance of a missing British journalist and his guide.
Investigative reporter Dom Phillips, 57, and respected indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, 41, disappeared early on Sunday morning while travelling by boat in Brazil’s Javari Valley, near the border with Peru, where Phillips was researching for a book.
Phillips and Pereira, who were on a two-day reporting trip, were last seen in the early hours of Sunday morning. They were expected to make the two-hour boat trip to São Rafael, Atalaia do Norte, with their arrival planned for 8am on Sunday, but never arrived.
Amarildo da Costa de Oliveria, also known by nickname Pelado, has been brought in for questioning by military police officers after his speedboat was seen chasing the boat of Phillips and Pereira. He was found with drugs and a shotgun.
Police say that when they began their journey to Atalaia do Norte where they were on a scheduled visit, where guide Pereira had organised a meeting with community leader nicknamed ‘Barbeque’ – who is Pelado’s uncle.
The meeting was reportedly about ‘consolidating joint work between riverside dwellers and indigenous people in the surveillance of the territory’, reports Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
Police have arrested 41-year-old Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira in connection with the disappearance of missing British journalist Dom Phillips (pictured left) and his guide Bruno Pereira (right)
Sian Phillips together with Gareth Phillips, the siblings of missing journalist Dom Phillips hold a placard and a rose, as demonstrators gather outside the Brazilian Embassy in London today
A vigil has been held in central London this morning for the missing pair, with well-wishers gathering outside the Brazilian Embassy carrying large images of Phillips and Pereira.
The niece of Phillips, Domonique Davies (right), shows her emotion as she takes part in a vigil outside the Brazilian Embassy this morning
Witnesses reported that Pelado’s boat chased the pair at high speed as soon as they left the community.
According to The Guardian, Pelado was one of 13 Indigenous people who are said to have ‘threatened’ Phillips and Pereira on Saturday morning – with a witness adding that Pelado and two other armed men posed further threats to the pair while they had stopped their boat on the side of the Itaquaí river.
A witness to the encounter told the Guardian that Da Costa and two other armed men threatened the group while they were stopped at the side of the Itaquaí river in Amazonas state.
Phillips, a regular contributor to the Guardian, photographed the men following the confrontation after they travelled by river to the territory’s borders, according to the Univaja association of people in the Vale do Javari indigenous territory.
Scientists, artists, journalists and football stars – including the legendary Pele – have since joined calls to help bolster the search efforts by posting messages on social media.
Brazilian football great Pele wrote on Twitter: ‘The fight for the preservation of the Amazon Forest and the protection of indigenous groups belongs to all of us… Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira dedicate their lives to this cause.
‘I join the many voices that make the appeal to intensify the search and to find them as soon as possible.’
The Javari region is an area notorious for illegal mining and drug trafficking, and the pair had reportedly faced threats before their disappearance
Phillips and Pereira, who were on a two-day reporting trip, were last seen in the early hours of Sunday morning. They were expected to make the two-hour boat trip to São Rafael, Atalaia do Norte, with their arrival planned for 8am on Sunday, but never arrived. A rescue team is pictured on the Javari River on Tuesday
Phillips, who is based in the city of Salvador, had previously accompanied Pereira in 2018 to the Javari Valley for a story in the Guardian newspaper, where is has been a regular contributor
The Amazon state police chief told reporters that it was ‘way too early’ to directly link the suspect to Phillips and Pereira’s disappearance.
Police chief Carlos Alberto Mansur said: ‘We have material that makes us suspect there is a link to the fact but it’s still just a suspicion. It’s still being investigated.
‘For now, our main job is searching and our hope is still to find them alive. That they had a problem with their boat, that they went up a river, that they are lost in the jungle. It’s the jungle, it’s a very complex area.
‘We still don’t have a strong indication a crime was committed.’
Investigators have now seized Pelado’s boat and are now looking for the other four who were also on board during the chase.
Pelado’s uncle ‘Barbeque’ was also detained on Monday night to provide information as a witness but was released shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, a vigil has been held in central London this morning for the missing pair, with well-wishers gathering outside the Brazilian Embassy carrying large images of Phillips and Pereira.
A letter was handed over to the Brazilian ambassador urging them to ask the country’s authorities to ramp up the search operation immediately.
Legendary Pele (pictured in 2015) posted a message on social media calling for authorities to bolster search efforts
The vigil, which has been promoted by Greenpeace, comes amid reported concerns that there had been little support from the authorities in the search.
Phillips has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has been working on a book about preservation of the Amazon.
Pereira has long operated in Javari Valley for the Brazilian indigenous affairs agency as an advocate of the indigenous tribes and had received a number of threats from illegal fisherman and poachers.
Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, recorded a video pleading with the government to intensify the operation.
‘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.
On Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro was criticised for describing the two men’s work as an ‘adventure’.
He said in an interview with television network SBT: ‘Really, just two people in a boat in a completely wild region like that is not a recommended adventure. Anything could happen.
‘It could be an accident, it could be that they have been killed. We hope and ask God that they’re found soon. The armed forces are working hard.’
Brazilian authorities have also begun using helicopters Wednesday to search in the remote area of the Amazon rainforest.
A Brazilian federal court issued an order Wednesday telling authorities to provide helicopters and more boats, after Univaja and the federal public defender’s office filed a request.
At an evening news conference, federal police showed multiple images and videos of the area taken earlier that day from a helicopter.
Veteran foreign correspondent Phillips pictured in 2019 in Roraima State
The journalist takes notes in Aldeia Waikay, a hamlet of the Yekuana tribe in Roraima State, Brazil, in November 2019
The Javari is thought to be home to the biggest concentration of uncontacted people in the world
In her decision, Judge Jaiza Maria Pinto noted that she had ordered the Indigenous affairs agency to maintain protections in the region after a 2019 case filed by Univaja reported multiple attacks by criminals. Despite that order, she said, the territory ‘has been maintained in a situation of low protection and supervision.’
There have been repeated shootouts between hunters, fishermen and official security agents in the area, which has the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted Indigenous people.
Pereira is currently on leave from Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency FUNAI and has spent much of his career fighting illegal activity in the rainforest – making him a target of frequent threats.
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.
Federal police said Wednesday that 250 people from the army, navy, police and firefighters had joined the search.
The 85,000-square-kilometer (33,000-square-mile) Javari Valley reservation is home to around 6,300 Indigenous people from 26 groups, including 19 with virtually no contact with the outside world.
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 said.
‘The operation to try and locate Bruno and Dom is immensely challenging.’
The uncontacted indigenous tribes of Brazil’s Amazon
Brazil’s Amazon is home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere in the world. There are thought to be at least 100 isolated groups in this rainforest, according to the government’s Indian affairs department FUNAI.
Their decision not to maintain contact with other tribes and outsiders is almost certainly a result of previous disastrous encounters and the ongoing invasion and destruction of their forest home.
Very little is known about these peoples. What is known is that they wish to remain uncontacted: they have shot arrows at outsiders and airplanes, or they simply avoid contact by hiding deep in the forest.
In Acre there could be as many as 600 indigenous individuals belonging to four different groups. Here they live in relative tranquility in several demarcated territories which are largely untouched.
It is possible that up to 300 uncontacted people live in the Massacó territory in Rondônia.
They use enormous bows and arrows – one bow was found measuring over four metres – very similar in size and design to the Sirionó tribe live in neighbouring Bolivia.
They clearly like to eat tortoises as mounds of shells have been found in abandoned camps.
However, other uncontacted groups are teetering on the edge of extinction with no more than a handful of individuals left.
A recent report says that some of them are abandoning their land due to the noise and pollution from the construction sites.
All are extremely vulnerable to diseases like flu or the common cold transmitted by outsiders and to which they have no resistance: good reasons to avoid contact.
Source: Survival International