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 Javari Valley, authorities have said. British 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 protection, state police and indigenous volunteers were mobilized in 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. 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 are not ruling out other avenues of investigation. The region is experiencing strong drug trafficking activity.
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