A search operation is intensifying in a remote region of the Amazon rainforest for a British journalist and a Brazilian indigenous expert missing since Sunday.
After initial criticism at the delay in mobilising resources, units from Brazil’s military and police have stepped up efforts to locate Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira amid deepening fears they were targeted by locals involved in illegal activity on indigenous territory.
One man is being held by police investigating their disappearance.
Authorities say Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira was detained on Tuesday after threatening members of the local indigenous community involved in the search operation and was found to be in possession of ammunition and a small amount of drugs.
Local indigenous rights activists told The Irish Times the man has a history of intimidation against them and is known to be involved in illegal fishing on their territory and has links to drug traffickers who use the remote region to transport cocaine from neighbouring Peru into Brazil.
Phillips, who is researching a book on the Amazon, and Mr Araújo Pereira were meeting residents from an indigenous community on Saturday when armed men threatened the group. Phillips photographed the men making the threats.
Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reported that a local witness provided a statement saying Mr Oliveira was seen with a shotgun and ammunition on Sunday shortly after Phillips and Mr Araújo Pereira were last seen leaving the riverside village of São Rafael.
The witness reportedly said the detained man had already promised to “settle accounts” with Mr Araújo Pereira, a leading indigenous expert who has documented illegal incursions by locals into demarcated indigenous territory in the area.
The statement said Mr Oliveira was later seen with four other men in a boat on a stretch of river Phillips and Mr Araújo Pereira were to take as they headed to the town of Atalaia do Norte. The alarm was first raised when the two did not arrive as scheduled. No sign of them or their boat has been found since.
Phillips’s sister Sian was joined by supporters at a vigil for the two men outside the Brazilian embassy in central London on Thursday.
She said: “We are here to make the point that why did it take so long for them to start the search for my brother and for Bruno. We want the search to carry on.”
Local indigenous groups have criticised the initial response by authorities to their calls for help especially that of the federal government. Along with the public defenders’ office and federal prosecutors, they secured a court ruling ordering the government to make available aircraft, boats and search teams for the rescue effort.
Critics have blamed President Jair Bolsonaro for the delay in deploying the full resources of the state to effort. “If the head of state had said immediately he would do everything possible to find Bruno and Dom things would have moved faster. Instead we had Bolsonaro’s comments that they were two adventurers,” says senator Mara Gabrilli.
In an open letter published on Thursday, editors and journalists from some of the world’s biggest news organisations have written to Mr Bolsonaro to ask that he “urgently step up and fully resource the effort” to find the two men.
In his only comments on the case the president said the two missing men had undertaken a “not recommended adventure”. The far-right leader is a long-standing critic of legal protections for Brazil’s indigenous peoples and his administration has run down the state organs charged with enforcing them.
– Additional reporting: PA