ATALAIA DO NORTE, State of Amazonas — A main line of police investigation into the disappearance of a British journalist and an Indigenous official 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 official Bruno Pereira were last seen last Sunday morning near the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, which sits in an area the size of Portugal bordering Peru and Colombia. The two men were in the Sao Rafael community. They were returning by boat to the nearby city of Atalaia do Norte but never arrived.
After a slow start, the army, the navy, civil defense, state police and Indigenous volunteers have been mobilized in the search. On Saturday, federal police said they were still analyzing human matter found the day before in the area where they disappeared. No more details were provided.
The scheme is run by local businessmen, who pay local 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 cities, 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 by Indigenous people who were with Pereira and Phillips, he brandished a rifle at them the day before the pair disappeared. He denies any wrongdoing and said military police tortured him to try to get a confession, his family told the Associated Press..
Pereira, who previously led the government’s Indigenous agency, known as FUNAI, has taken part in several operations against illegal fishing. In such operations, as a rule the fishing gear is seized or destroyed, while the fishermen are fined and briefly detained. Only the Indigenous can legally fish in their territories.
“The crime’s motive is some personal feud over fishing inspection,” the mayor of Atalaia do Norte, Denis Paiva, speculated to reporters without providing more details.
The AP had access to information police shared with Indigenous leadership. While some police, the mayor and others in the region link the pair's disappearances to a “fish mafia,” federal police do not rule out other lines of investigation. The area has a heavy narcotrafficking activity.
Fisherman Laurimar Alves Lopes, 45, who lives on the banks of Itaquai river, where the pair disappeared, told the AP he gave up fishing inside the Indigenous territory after being detained three times. He said he endured beating and starvation in jail.
“I made many mistakes, I stole a lot of fish. When you see your child dying of hunger you go get it where you have to. So I would go there to steal fish to be able to support my family. But then I said: I’m going to put an end to this, I’m going to plant”, he said during an interview on his boat.
He said he was taken to local federal police headquarters in Tabatinga three times, 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. He said he was thrown to the ground and spent one night in the local FUNAI base before being sent to Tabatinga.
In 2019, Santos was gunned down in Tabatinga in front of his wife and daughter-in-law. Three years later, the crime remains unsolved. His FUNAI colleagues told the AP they believe the crime is linked to his work against fishermen and poachers.
Lopes, who has five children, says his family’s primary income is $80 monthly from a federal social program. He also sells watermelon and bananas in Atalaia do Norte’s streets, which earned him around $1,200 last year. He claims he only fishes near his home to feed his family, not sell.
Rubber tappers founded all the riverbank communities in the area. In the 1980s, however, rubber tapping declined and they resorted to logging. That ended, too, 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 lasts around one month, according to Manoel Felipe, a local historian and teacher who also served as a councilman. For each illegal incursion, one fisherman earns at least $3,000.
“The fishermen’s financiers are Colombians,” Felipe said. “In Leticia, everybody was angry with Bruno. This is not a little game. It’s possible they sent a gunman to kill him.”
In mayor Paiva’s view, it is not a coincidence that the only two killings of Funai officials in the region occurred during the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has often advocated tapping Indigenous territories’ resources, particularly minerals, by the non-Indigenous and companies.
“This government made people more prone to violence. You talk to someone today and he says he has to take up arms. It was not like this before," he said.