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Hopes Fade of Finding Missing UK Journalist, Brazilian Indigenous Expert Alive

As the search continues for missing British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Araújo Pereira—both recipients of regular death threats for their work to protect the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples—their loved ones have lost hope of finding them alive.

“They are no longer with us,” wrote Phillips’ mother-in-law in a social media post.

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“Their souls have joined those of so many others who gave their lives in defence of the rainforest and Indigenous peoples,” she added. “Today they form part of an immense and pulsating vital energy that emanates from this immense greenery that is the heart of Brazil.”

Phillips’ wife shared the statement online and said she agreed, reports the Guardian.

Phillips, 57, has lived and worked in Brazil for more than a decade, reporting on the country for some of the world’s top newspapers, including the Guardian and the Washington Post. Pereira, 41, is a former official with Brazil’s federal Indigenous agency, FUNAI. Local Indigenous leaders first reported the two men missing June 6 after they failed to return from a reporting trip into the Vale do Javari, a remote, notoriously violent jungle region on Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia.

Home to the world’s largest number of uncontacted Indigenous people, the Vale do Javari is also known as a haven for cocaine-smuggling gangs, as well as for illegal hunting and fishing. 

A former government official responsible for protecting Brazil’s uncontacted tribes, Pereira has long been the recipient of “threats from the loggers and miners seeking to invade their lands,” the Guardian writes. And both men had received further threats in recent days.

BBC News reported on June 11 that “possible human remains” had been found in a river near the town of Atalaia do Norte, a chief entry point into the Javari region. Blood traces were also found on a boat belonging to a fisherman who police say was the last person to see the two men alive. The blood has been sent for forensic examination, along with DNA from Phillips’ and Pereira’s families. While the fisherman is protesting his innocence in the disappearance of the two men, he has been arrested and charged with the illegal possession of a firearm.

The far right government of President Jair Bolsonaro has been sharply criticized for its slow response to the case. On June 6, the Guardian reported that the Brazilian Navy had sent a 10-person crew to the men’s last known location, but the unit had yet to receive orders from Brasília to join in the search. It wasn’t until three days later that 250 personnel were deployed to find the two men, including jungle operations experts and divers, as well as two helicopters, three drones, and 16 boats, reports Agence France-Presse.

“We have reinforced the search operation since yesterday,” Justice Minister Anderson Torres tweeted June 9, failing to mention that the helicopters and more boats entered the search only after a Brazilian federal court ordered authorities to provide them. Al Jazeera writes that the court issued the order following a request filed by local Indigenous association Univaja and the federal public defender’s office.

The expanded search effort also follows an international outcry against the government’s torpid response. In an open letter published June 9, editors from a number of international news agencies, including the Guardian, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and Reporters without Borders expressed deep concern about reports that “search and rescue efforts so far have been minimally resourced, with national authorities slow to offer more than very limited assistance.”

That casual lack of concern goes right to the top of the Brazilian government. “Really, just two people in a boat in a completely wild region like that is not a recommended,” Bolsonaro told Brazilian TV network SBT early last week. “Anything could happen. It could be an accident. It could be that they have been killed.”

He added: “We hope and ask God that they’re found soon. The armed forces are working hard.”

Shortly after Phillips and Pereira were declared missing, Beto Marubo, a prominent Indigenous leader who knows both men, told the Guardian that “we need an urgent search mission. We need the police, we need the army, we need firefighters, we need civil defence forces. We have no time to lose.”

Noting that the Javari region has grown more and more dangerous in recent years, Marubo said things have markedly worsened since Bolsonaro came to power “because the invaders felt empowered and became more aggressive.”

Illegal miners and hunters are now “plundering” the Javari’s forests and waterways in a systematic manner, he added. “They are veritable gangs and they are very violent.”