Brazil sends helicopters to search for 2 missing people in the Amazon

NORTH ATALAIA – Brazilian authorities have started using helicopters to search a remote area of ​​the Amazon rainforest for a British journalist and an indigenous leader who have been missing for more than three days.

Civilian police in Amazonas state also said on Wednesday they had identified a suspect, who was arrested for allegedly carrying a firearm without a license, which is common practice in the region. But General Carlos Alberto Mansur, secretary of state for public security, later said officials had no concrete evidence to link the man to the disappearances.

“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 investigation began, but no arrests related to the disappearances have been made, authorities said in their first joint public address.

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Journalist Dom Phillips, a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper, and Bruno Araújo Pereira, an employee of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency with extensive experience in the region, were last seen early Sunday in the community of Sao Rafael, in the Javari Valley. Indigenous territory.

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 at a patrol led by Univaja, a local indigenous 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 start and remain insufficient.

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In London, Phillips’ family and supporters held a vigil outside the Brazilian Embassy and urged officials to explain why it took so long for the search to begin.

“We were supposed to come this morning, to ask the question: where is Dom Phillips? Where is Bruno Pereira?” Phillips’ sister Sian told reporters. “We are here to explain why it took them so long to start the search for my brother and Bruno. We want the research to continue.

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 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”.

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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 servant 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.

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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 pleading with the government and authorities to step up the search.

“We still have some hope of finding them. Even if I can’t find the love of my life alive, it has 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”.

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

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Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro.

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