British Journalist, Local Indigenous Expert Disappear in Amazon; Authorities Identify Suspect

A researcher and a journalist went missing over the weekend in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said that veteran foreign correspondent Dom Phillips, 57, disappeared while researching for a book with indigenous expert Bruno Araujo Pereira in the Brazilian Amazon’s Vale do Javari.

Today, authorities announced that a man arrested Tuesday on separate charges might be connected to the disappearance.

Timeline, locations, and search details

The two men had set off last week by boat for a region known as the Lago do Jaburu. On Friday evening, June 3, they reached their destination, according to the Unijava Association of Indigenous people, which helped organize the trip. Then on Sunday morning, the two men left the indigenous community of Sao Rafael for the city of Atalaia do Norte, again by boat.

missing amazon journalist

Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas, Brazil. Photo: Município de Atalaia do Norte

 

The trip normally takes two hours, and the men should have arrived in Atalaia do Norte around 9 am local time. They never did. The route passes through Sao Gabriel, where they were last seen.

By 2 pm, authorities were already concerned enough to launch an intensive search of the area, involving federal and civil police and the navy. It’s a complex region to search: a city of 20,000+, Atalaia do Norte serves as the main access point for the Javari reserve, a river-rich area larger than Austria. Only indigenous people live here. It is normally illegal for non-indigenous people to enter.

vale do javari

 

‘Threats’ worry friends and family, who call for urgency

The disappearance reportedly occurred amid threats over the two men’s fieldwork. According to Bloomberg, Pereira, who works for Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), has attracted death threats for his activism against illegal mining, poaching, and logging.

And the Univaja team said separately that it had received death threats via a letter just days before the trip.

The search continued as of Wednesday. Pereira’s partner, anthropologist Beatriz de Almeida Matos, told Brazilian media that she’s worried.

“I know the region well and am aware that various accidents can happen. But I’m worried because of the threats he’s received,” Matos told Folha de Sao Paulo, one of the country’s most prominent outlets.

Per France 24, FUNAI said that it was collaborating with local authorities on the search. It added that when he disappeared, Pereira was on leave from the agency “to pursue personal interests”.

A spokesperson for The Guardian, where Phillips contributes, emphasized the need for urgency.

“The Guardian is very concerned and is urgently seeking information about Mr. Phillips’ whereabouts and condition. We are in contact with the British embassy in Brazil and local and national authorities to try to establish the facts as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said on Monday.

“We have no time to lose,” added Beto Marubo, a local indigenous leader who knows both men.

‘Systematically organized gangs’

Marubo said tension has increased in the Javari region due to growing pressure from resource extractors in recent years. The situation worsened sharply, he said, after the 2019 murder of indigenous protection official Maxciel Pereira dos Santos.

“Under the Bolsonaro government, the pressure has increased even more because the invaders felt empowered and became more aggressive,” he said, adding that “systematically organized gangs” of illegal miners and hunters were “plundering” the area’s forests and rivers with impunity.

“They are veritable gangs, and they are very violent,” the indigenous leader said.

According to The Guardian, Phillips is “working on a book about the environment” with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The writer has lived in Salvador, Brazil, for 15 years. He also contributes to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Financial Times.

His family joined the call for swift action in the search.

“We implore the Brazilian authorities to send the national guard, federal police and all the powers at their disposal to find our cherished Dom,” tweeted Paul Sherwood, the partner of the journalist’s sister.

“He loves Brazil and has committed his career to coverage of the Amazon rainforest.”

Witness testimony leads to arrest

Today, Folha de Sao Paolo reported that a man arrested on a separate charge of carrying prohibited ammunition “followed” Phillips and Pereira on the river the morning they disappeared.

Witnesses told the Amazonas Military Police that they saw the two men’s speedboat pass down the Itacoi River toward Atalaio do Norte Sunday morning. “Right after” it passed, Folha reported, they saw another boat: a green speedboat with the Nike symbol.

Authorities then tracked the boat to a 41-year-old man called Amarildo. Police found he had also been in Sao Gabriel, Phillips and Pereira’s last known whereabouts.

The police arrested the fisherman after finding prohibited ammo, including a 7.62-caliber rifle and 16 “chumbinhos,” or lead pellets. They also found a small amount of what they believed to be cocaine.

Lawyer alleges arrested man threatened ‘team’

Amarildo then testified at the 50th Directorate of Police Intelligence. Authorities are still investigating Amarildo’s possible connection to it.

Elieso Marubo, a lawyer for Univaja, said that the man had “made some threats against the team” last weekend.

According to Folha, the Government of Amazonas has heard testimonies from four witnesses and one suspect in the disappearance. It was unclear whether Amarildo was the suspect in question.

Witnesses included two other anglers, whom authorities released after questioning.

Also, today, Federal Judge Jaiza Maria Pinto Fraxe, representing the 1st Civil Court of Amazonas, ordered the federal government to allocate operational support to the search, including helicopters and search teams.