The fate of the Brazilian indigenist and British journalist missing for more than a week in the Amazon remains uncertain as Brazil’s authorities have provided conflicting information about the search operation.
On Monday morning the family of Dom Phillips in England said they were contacted by an official at Brazil’s embassy in London and told two bodies had been found by searchers in the region where their brother had disappeared with Bruno Araújo Pereira on June 5th. The bodies were reportedly tied to a tree. Mr Phillips’s Brazilian wife Alessandra Sampaio was also contacted by federal police and told two bodies had been found but had not yet been formally identified.
Then as media reported the developments the federal police released a terse public statement saying the two men had not been found. A local indigenous group involved in the rescue effort also said they were unaware of any discovery of bodies.
One of Brazil’s leading indigenous experts on uncontacted and isolated tribes in the Amazon rainforest, Mr Araújo Pereira, 41, has received numerous threats during a career dedicated to protecting indigenous territory from invasion. The day before he and Mr Phillips disappeared they were meeting members of a local indigenous community when they were threatened by armed men. Over the weekend authorities became increasingly confident they were close to solving the case after a witness provided new information, helping them narrow their search area. On Sunday divers recovered a rucksack and other personal belongings belonging to the missing pair submerged along the bank of the Itaquaí river.
A local fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira was detained by police last Tuesday as part of the investigation into the men’s disappearance. A witness said Mr Oliveira had threatened to “settle accounts” with Mr Araújo Pereira and was seen with a shotgun and ammunition shortly after Mr Phillips and Mr Araújo Pereira were last seen alive. Mr Oliveira was later reported to have been seen with four other men in a boat on a stretch of river the two missing men were to take as they headed to the town of Atalaia do Norte. Mr Costa de Oliveira has a history of intimidation against local indigenous communities and is known to be involved in illegal fishing on their territory, local activists say.
Mr Phillips and Mr Araújo Pereira were last seen in the Javari Valley on the morning of June 5th. The region along Brazil’s border with Peru is one of the remotest in the Amazon and home to more uncontacted tribes than anywhere else on earth. In recent years the area has witnessed a spike in criminal activity after the federal government’s indigenous and environmental protection agencies were gutted by the far-right administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. This has caused an increase in illegal logging, mining and hunting across the rainforest. The rivers in the Javari Valley are also disputed by drug trafficking running cocaine from Peru into Brazil.