ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — A police investigation into the disappearance of a British journalist and an indigenous leader in the Amazon points to an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in Brazil’s second-largest indigenous territory, authorities said.
Freelance journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous leader Bruno Pereira were last seen on Sunday morning near the indigenous territory of the Javari Valley, which is in an area the size of Portugal bordering Peru and Colombia. Both men belonged to the community of Sao Rafael. They were returning by boat to the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte but never arrived.
After a slow start, the Army, Navy, Civil Defense, State Police, and native volunteers were mobilized into the search. On Saturday, the federal police indicated that they were still analyzing human matter found the day before in the area where they disappeared. No other details were provided.
The scheme is run by local businessmen, who pay fishermen to enter the Javari Valley, catch fish and deliver it to them. One of the most valuable targets is the world’s largest freshwater fish with scales, the arapaima. It weighs up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and can reach 3 meters (10 feet). The fish is sold in nearby towns including Leticia, Colombia, Tabatinga, Brazil and Iquitos, Peru.
The only known suspect in the disappearances is fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, who is under arrest. According to accounts from Aboriginal people who were with Pereira and Phillips, he brandished a gun at them the day before the couple disappeared. He denies any wrongdoing and said military police tortured him in an attempt to extract a confession, his family told The Associated Press.
Pereira, who previously headed the local office of the indigenous government agency, known as FUNAI, has taken part in several operations against illegal fishing. In such operations, as a rule, fishing gear is seized or destroyed, while fishermen are fined and briefly detained. Only natives can legally fish on their territories.
“The motive for the crime is a personal quarrel over the fisheries inspection,” speculated the mayor of Atalaia do Norte, Denis Paiva, to reporters without providing further details.
The AP had access to information shared by the police with the indigenous leaders. While some police officers, the mayor and others in the area link the couple’s disappearances to a “fish mafia,” federal police aren’t ruling out other avenues of investigation. The region is experiencing strong drug trafficking activity.
Fisherman Laurimar Alves Lopes, 45, who lives on the banks of the Itaquai River where the couple disappeared, told the AP he had given up fishing inside indigenous territory after being detained in three times. He said he endured beatings and starvation in prison.
“I made a lot of mistakes, I stole a lot of fish. When you see your child starving, you go and get him where you need to. So I’ll go there to steal fish so that you can provide for the needs of my family. But then I said, I’m going to stop this, I’m going to crash,” he said in an interview on his boat.
He said he was taken three times to the local federal police headquarters in Tabatinga, where he was beaten and left without food.
One of the arrests was made by Funai official Maxciel Pereira dos Santos. Lopes said he was falsely accused of hunting in an indigenous area this time around. He says he spent one night at the local FUNAI base before being sent to Tabatinga.
In 2019, Santos was shot dead in Tabatinga in front of his wife and daughter-in-law. Three years later, the crime remains unsolved. His colleagues at FUNAI told the AP they believed the crime was linked to his work against fishermen and poachers.
Lopes, who has five children, says her family’s main income is $80 a month from a federal social program. He also sells watermelons and bananas on the streets of Atalaia do Norte, which brought him around $1,200 last year. He claims to only fish near his home to feed his family, not to sell.
The rubber tappers founded all the riverside communities in the region. In the 1980s, however, rubber mining declined and they resorted to logging. This also ended when the federal government created the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in 2001. Fishing has become the main economic activity since then.
A fishing trip to the vast Javari Valley takes about a month, according to Manoel Felipe, a local historian and teacher who also served as a city councillor. For each illegal incursion, a fisherman earns at least $3,000.
“Fishermen’s financiers are Colombians,” Felipe said. “In Leticia, everyone was angry with Bruno. It’s no small game. It’s possible they sent a gunman to kill him.
Mayor Paiva says it’s no coincidence that the only two killings of Funai officials in the region took place during the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has often advocated resource exploitation Indigenous territories, especially minerals, by non-Indigenous people and companies.
“This government has made people more prone to violence. You talk to someone today and he says he has to take up arms. It wasn’t like this before,” he said.