Brazil’s military leadership at Amazon said it was aware that Dom Phillips, a frequent contributor to the Guardian and one-time contract writer for the Washington Post, had gone missing with his travel companion, Bruno Pereira, a longtime official with Brazil’s indigenous rights organization. She said the armed forces were able to carry out a “humanitarian mission” to find and rescue the men “as they have done throughout their history.”
But she couldn’t work yet. The agency was still waiting for approval from the higher command. The Brazilian Navy said it wouldn’t Provides access to a helicoptera vital search tool in an undeveloped and vast area like western Amazonia, until Tuesday morning — 48 hours after Phillips and Pereira failed to appear as expected Sunday morning in Atalaya de Norte.
The delay represents a research effort that has been criticized by the family and indigenous rights groups as being too slow and too insignificant to resolve the disappearance that has gripped the country. One indigenous rights group said so little had been done that it had filed a joint judicial work With the Federal Public Defense Office to ask for more help – help that may have been quickly dispatched from a military base in nearby Tabatinga.
“I’m here in distress, and I’m hoping for help,” Alessandra Sampaio, Phillips’ wife, told The Post on Tuesday. And the slowdown of these devices and their bureaucracy. Instead of moving with urgency to save lives, they are waiting for someone to sign, the game of pushing power from one agency to another, while two people have lives.”
The Brazilian Federal Police and the Navy did not respond to requests for comment. The Amazon Military Command defended its action.
“Search efforts began on Monday in the Javari Valley area of Atalaia de Norte and continued uninterrupted both by river and by land, using soldiers in the forest,” the command said in a statement.
In public remarks on Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has clashed frequently with the media and has been a staunch supporter of development projects in the Amazon region, appeared to blame the missing men.
“Two people on a boat, in a completely wild area like this, is an adventure that no one would recommend,” he said. “Anything can happen – an accident can happen, they can be executed – anything.”
As the third day passes without news, the fear grows. The state of Western Amazonia is a lawless region dominated by violent criminals bent on destroying the jungle and extracting resources from it. Indigenous rights groups say the men were threatened during a forest expedition. There was growing concern that they would be attacked and disappeared. Residents say if there had been a problem with transportation or equipment, the men would have been found by now.
“They definitely suffered an attack,” said Eliseo Marubo, a lawyer for the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Federation, who first sent out an alert that Phillips and Pereira were missing. “Bruno was very responsible and experienced. He is like a brother to me. He wouldn’t get lost like that outside.”
Phillips, a longtime freelance reporter in Brazil who specializes in the Amazon region, was researching a book project on conservation efforts in the forest. His work led him to Atalaia do Norte, the gateway to the Javari Valley, a gigantic forest considered the world’s largest repository of unconnected people. He was accompanied by Pereira, who once oversaw the regional government’s indigenous agency, FUNAI, but was not with Phillips in an official capacity.
The men had been in contact with Orlando Posuelo, an indigenous rights activist who launched an initiative last year to train indigenous groups to defend themselves against attacks by land invaders who seize resources from their lands.
Boswello said the work made him enemies. They were putting pressure on the poachers in the Aboriginal Reserve, who began to respond forcefully.
This was the area that Phillips ventured into with Pereira over the weekend, traveling up the Itakaway River to meet indigenous teams working to protect their lands. At one point, Boswello said, they came into contact with an illegal poacher who had previously made threats against the natives. Boswello said he was told that the hunter had done it Pistol board.
“Bruno saw it all and took a picture,” Boswello said. “The natives were filming it too. Bruno was going back with all this evidence so we could present it to the authorities.”
Posuelo said he received a letter from Pereira at 6 a.m. on Sunday. He said they would pass by the riverside community of São Rafael on their way to Atalaia de Norte, perhaps an hour or two away by boat. Posuelo arranged to meet Pereira at eight in the morning, but he never arrived. Boswello said he waited until 10 before heading out with another member of his team to look for them.
Boswello said he took their steps back to the location where they were last seen. He said he was told by an indigenous monitoring team that a poacher’s boat had been seen going down the river after Pereira’s boat had passed.
“And from there, I had no hope,” Boswello said. He said he searched for two days with little government support but found no sign of the men. He said he filed a police report.
Boswello did not mention the name of the fisherman. The federal police in the state of Amazonas did not respond to a request for comment. The Post was unable to independently confirm Boswello’s account.
Indigenous leaders are calling for a broad effort to clarify what happened to the two men. Lawyer Marubo said the Indigenous Union had prepared a report for the authorities that included the names of people suspected of involvement in the disappearances. They say the hunter has fled into the forest.
Beto Marubu, a leader of the Marubu people, said the government needed to respond to the issue more forcefully. He called on the Brazilian authorities to start treating the disappearance not only as a search and rescue mission but also as a criminal investigation.
“My frustration goes beyond a slow research assignment,” he said. “We need to find out the motives and circumstances behind the disappearance of Dom and Bruno. These are armed gangs who are causing violence not only against the indigenous population but also against our partners. There should be an investigation by the police.”