Brazilian police investigating the disappearance of a British journalist and an indigenous expert in the Amazon rainforest are focusing on people involved in illegal fishing and poaching in indigenous lands, three officers told Reuters.
Two of the officers are Amazonas state police detectives directly involved in the case, while the other is a senior Brazilian federal police officer tracking it closely. They requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
“The principal criminal hypothesis at this point is that the people involved, and their motive, was related to illegal fishing and poaching activities in indigenous territories,” said the federal police officer.
Witnesses said they last saw Dom Phillips, a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian and the Washington Post, on Sunday. Phillips was traveling deep in a lawless part of the Amazon rainforest with Bruno Pereira, a former official with federal indigenous agency Funai.
Their disappearance has echoed globally, with politicians, celebrities, journalists and activists urging Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government to intensify its efforts to find them.
The two men were on a reporting trip in the Javari Valley, a remote jungle area on the border between Peru and Colombia that is home to the world’s largest number of uncontacted indigenous people. The wild and lawless region lures cocaine-smuggling gangs, as well as illegal hunters and fishermen.
Fishermen and poachers travel deep into the Javari Valley, next to the border with Peru, to find protected species like the pirarucu fish which are sold in regional markets in nearby towns like Tabatinga. In 2019, Maxciel Pereira, who worked with Funai to shut down illegal fishing in the Javari Valley, was shot dead in Tabatinga.
As a former Funai official in the Javari indigenous reservation, Pereira had often clashed with fishermen plundering protected fishing stocks and traveled the region with a gun. He had also recently received a threatening letter from a fisherman, police told Reuters.
Police in the town of Atalaia do Norte have questioned several fishermen as witnesses and arrested one of them, a local fisherman called Amarildo da Costa, known locally as “Pelado.” He has been charged with illegal possession of restricted ammunition. Police have said he was one of the last people to see the two men.
The senior federal police officer and one of the detectives said Da Costa was suspected of involvement in illegal fishing. The detective said Da Costa and various other local fisherman interviewed by police as witnesses worked for a man known as “Colombia,” a major buyer of fish and game caught in the reserve. Reuters was unable to determine the buyer’s formal name, nor to reach him.
Da Costa’s lawyer, Davi Oliveira, said his client was not involved in the disappearance of Phillips and Pereira, and was only engaged in legal fishing. Oliveira said he did not know if Da Costa worked for “Colombia.”
Two residents in Atalaia do Norte told Reuters that “Colombia” lived across the border in Peru.