Brazilian authorities said on Wednesday that they had detained a suspect in the case of a missing British journalist and expert on indigenous issues – but they have not yet found out if the man was linked to their disappearance in a remote region of the Amazon.
Concerns are growing over the fate of Dom Phillips and Bruno Araújo Pereira, who was first reported missing in the Javari Valley, in the western part of the state of Amazonas on Sunday. They are said to have received death threats just days before.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Amazon’s state security secretary Carlos Alberto Mansur said the suspect is still under investigation in police custody.
Mansur said the man was arrested after being found in possession of “a lot of drugs” and ammunition used for illegal hunting.
Authorities said Wednesday they are pursuing several lines of investigation, including killings, adding that they still “can not rule out anything.”
Mansur noted that five other people have also been questioned by police in connection with the disappearance of Phillips and Pereira, who had traveled to the region to do research for a book project on conservation work in the region.
Ahead of the press conference, media organizations and family members of both missing men asked the federal government to step up the search. Police Superintendent Eduardo Alexandre Fontes said on Wednesday that a total of 250 men, two helicopters, three drones and 16 boats have been deployed for the search and rescue operation.
Phillips and Pereira have been missing for more than 72 hours, according to the Coordination of the Indigenous Organization. The organization, known as UNIVAJA, said satellite information showed the couple’s last known location in the São Rafael community early Sunday morning, where they were expected to meet a local leader who never showed up.
The Javari Valley – the second largest indigenous territory in Brazil – is home to thousands of indigenous peoples and around 16 uncontacted groups – a patchwork of rivers and dense forests that make access very difficult. The area has come under increased threat from illegal miners, lumberjacks, hunters and international drug smugglers who exploit the vast network of rivers.
On Wednesday, Federal Superintendent Fontes described the area where Phillips and Pereira were missing as “complicated” and “dangerous.”
Phillips and Pereira had traveled to the region to research a book on conservation work there. Phillips, an Amazon specialist, had previously reported to the British newspaper The Guardian on threats from illegal mining and cattle farmers to uncontacted indigenous groups in the region.
Despite being under government protection, the Javari Valley can be a hostile environment for journalists and indigenous rights activists. According to Brazil’s public prosecutor’s office, an indigenous worker was murdered in the area in September 2019.
“In this region, violence is advancing in an increasingly uncontrolled manner in the context of the invasion of indigenous and state-owned countries, the suppression of press freedom and the work of journalists,” UNIVAJA said in a statement.
In 2018, Phillips reported on the threats from illegal mining and cattle farmers against uncontacted indigenous groups there, with Pereira at the heart of that article.
Survival International, an NGO that advocates for indigenous peoples, said that Pereira had previously received “many threats” as a result of his work as an “ally of the indigenous struggle”.