ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil (AP) — Two men who were with a British journalist and an Indigenous official a day before they went missing in the Amazon said Thursday that they had unsuccessfully tried to get authorities to intervene after three fishermen threatened the group by brandishing guns.
Dom Phillips, a freelance journalist, and Indigenous official Bruno Pereira were last seen on Sunday morning in the Javari Valley, Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory which sits in an isolated area bordering Peru and Colombia. The two men were in the Sao Rafael community, and returning by boat to the nearby city of Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived.
The day before, Phillips and Pereira had been threatened by the men brandishing guns, Paulo Marubo, the president of a Javari Valley association of Indigenous people, Univaja, told the Associated Press. Marubo said that Phillips photographed the men at the time, including local resident Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, known as Pelado. Costa de Oliveira was being held in Atalaia do Norte and is considered the main suspect in the disappearance.
After the incident, two men who were with Phillips and Pereira when the fishermen showed up, said they went to the nearby federal base that has permanent presence of Brazil’s bureau office for Indigenous affairs, known as FUNAI, and policemen from the National Guard.
“We went there but they did nothing,” said Raimundo Mayoruna, 20, told the AP. “They didn’t go after Pelado at all. They didn’t want to help us.”
Mayoruna and Salomão Mayoruna, 32, are part of a local group that watches that area of the river. They said they were with Phillips and Pereira at a hut on Saturday when the incident took place.
Messages seeking comment from FUNAI and the National Guard were not immediately answered.
The details emerged as search parties on Thursday narrowed their area of focus and top news editors, US lawmakers, soccer superstars and Hollywood celebrities urged the Brazilian government to intensify efforts to find the men.
AP journalists traveled by boat Thursday along the stretch of the Itaquai River where the pair disappeared. The area is inhabited by some riverside communities and serves as the main gateway to the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land, inhabited by about 6,000 Indigenous people spread over a region the size of Portugal.
Federal Police investigators have concluded that the two disappeared in a stretch between a resident’s house and the mouth of the Quixito River.
All the search efforts were concentrated on this stretch. Along the river, there were small, scattered teams from the Navy, Indians, Civil Defense and the Army, whose barge arrived in the region on Thursday, pulling smaller boats.
On a muddy river bank, two recently contacted Matis Indians were looking for traces of the missing pair. In broken Portuguese, they explained that they had found nothing. Other teams did not report seeing any clues as to the whereabouts of the two.
Aboard a Navy boat, a volunteer dropped an anchor in the river, explaining that when it touches something different at the bottom of the river, he dives in to check. As visibility is zero in the muddy water, he has to search the riverbed with his hands.
Phillips and Pereira had been speaking with people on the outskirts of the protected area, but never entered it, according to multiple people whom the AP interviewed in the area.
The difficult search comes as Indigenous leaders on the ground, family members and peers of Pereira and Phillips have expressed concern that authorities’ search efforts were insufficient and lacked coordination. A growing number of celebrities, politicians, civil society groups and international news organizations have joined their call, asking that the police, army and navy bolster the search efforts.
Actor Mark Ruffalo called on Twitter for an “international response”, stressing the worrying number of journalists being “attacked, killed, or disappeared”.
In Los Angeles, where Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and President Joe Biden met Thursday, two trucks parked in the middle of an avenue displayed messages along with large illustrations of Phillips and Pereira. “THREATENED. NOW MISSING. WHERE ARE DOM & BRUNO?” read one of the messages.
Several U.S. lawmakers have also turned to Twitter calling for swift action, including Sen. Ed Markey, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said on Wednesday that “Brazil must not delay a robust search and accountability process.” Others included Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Led by The Guardian and The Washington Post, where Phillips worked as a freelance journalist, international news editors and organizations published a joint letter Thursday directed to Bolsonaro, asking that he “urgently step up and fully resource the effort.” Signatories included The New Yorker, The Associated Press, Britain’s Channel 4 News, The Financial Times, France’s Agence France-Press, as well as Reporters Without Borders.
Earlier this week, Bolsonaro drew criticism when describing the two men’s work in the Amazon as an “adventure.”
“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,” he said in an interview with television network SBT. “We hope and ask God that they’re found soon. The armed forces are working hard.”
On social media, a growing number of Brazilian celebrities, including soccer superstar Pelé and actor Camila Pitanga expressed concern over the disappearances.
Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and has most recently been working on a book about preservation of the Amazon. 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 to help local Indigenous people defend themselves against illegal fishermen and poachers.
For years, Pereira had received threats for his work.
The Javari Valley has one of the world’s largest population of Indigenous people with no or little contact with the outside world.
Despite fierce resistance from the local non-Indigenous population, the federal government in 2001 created the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, aiming to protect an area about the size of Portugal. Non-Indigenous communities just outside the newly established protected land had historically fished within it, and were no longer allowed. Since then, tensions have only grown.
There have been repeated shootouts between hunters, fishermen and official security agents in the area. 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.
Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro.
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