The Brazilian Amazon Military Command said it was aware that Dom Phillips, a frequent contributor to the Guardian and onetime contract writer for The Washington Post, had gone missing with his traveling companion, Bruno Pereira, a longtime official of Brazil’s Indigenous rights organization. It said the armed forces were capable of carrying out a “humanitarian mission” to find and rescue the men, “as it has done throughout its history.”
But it couldn’t yet act. The agency was still waiting for approval from higher command. The Brazilian navy said it wouldn’t provide access to a helicopter, a vital search tool in an area as undeveloped and vast as western Amazonas state, until Tuesday morning — 48 hours after Phillips and Pereira failed to show up as expected Sunday morning in Atalaia do Norte.
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The delay typified a search effort that family and Indigenous rights groups have criticized as too slow and too meager to resolve a disappearance that has absorbed the country. So little was being done, an Indigenous rights group said, that it filed a joint judicial action with the federal public defenders office to request more help — assistance that might have been quickly dispatched from a military base in nearby Tabatinga.
“I am here in anguish, hoping for help,” Alessandra Sampaio, Phillips’s wife, told The Post on Tuesday. “And the sluggishness of these agencies and their bureaucracy. Instead of moving with urgency to save lives, they are waiting for someone’s signature, a game of pushing authority from one agency to another, while there are two lives out there.”
The federal police and Brazilian navy didn’t respond to requests to comment. The Amazon Military Command defended its work.
“The search efforts began on Monday in the region of the Javari Valley in Atalaia do Norte and have gone on uninterrupted by both river and on land, employing jungle soldiers,” the command said in a statement.
In public statements Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has frequently clashed with the media and has been an unabashed supporter of development projects in the Amazon, appeared to cast blame on the missing men.
“Two people in a boat, in a completely wild region like this, is an adventure that isn’t recommendable for one to do,” he said. “Anything could happen — an accident could happen, they could have been executed — anything.”
As the third day without news stretches by, fear is building. Western Amazonas state is a lawless region pervaded by violent criminals intent on destroying the forest and extracting resources from it. Indigenous rights groups say the men had been threatened during their forest expedition. There was growing concern that they were attacked and disappeared. If there had been a problem with their transportation or equipment, residents say, the men would have been found by now.
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“They certainly suffered an attack,” said Eliesio Marubo, attorney for the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Union, which first sent out the alert that Phillips and Pereira were missing. “Bruno was extremely responsible and experienced. He’s like a brother to me. He wouldn’t just get lost like that out there.”
Phillips, a longtime freelance correspondent in Brazil who specialized in the Amazon, was researching a book project on conservation efforts in the forest. His work took him to Atalaia do Norte, the gateway to the Javari Valley, a massive forest considered the world’s largest repository of uncontacted peoples. He was accompanied by Pereira, who once oversaw the regional government Indigenous agency, FUNAI, but was not with Phillips in an official capacity.
The men were in contact with Orlando Possuelo, an Indigenous rights worker who launched an initiative last year to train Indigenous groups to defend themselves against attacks by land invaders seizing resources from their land.
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The work had made him enemies, Possuelo said. They were pressuring illegal fishermen in the Indigenous reserve, who had begun to respond aggressively.
This was the region into which Phillips ventured with Pereira over the weekend, traveling down the Itaquai River to interview Indigenous teams working to protect their territory. At some point, Possuelo said, they came into contact with an illegal fisherman who had previously made threats against Indigenous people. Possuelo said he was told the fisherman had brandished a gun.
“Bruno witnessed it all and took a picture,” Possuelo said. “The Indigenous were filming it, too. And Bruno was coming back with all of that evidence so that we could provide it to the authorities.”
Possuelo said he received a message from Pereira at 6 a.m. Sunday. He said they were going to pass by the riverside community of São Rafael on their way to Atalaia do Norte, perhaps an hour or two away by boat. Possuelo arranged to meet Pereira at 8 a.m., but he never arrived. Possuelo said he waited until 10 before heading out with another member of his team to search for them.
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Possuelo said he retraced their steps to the location where they were last seen. He said he was told by an Indigenous surveillance team that a boat belonging to the illegal fisherman had been seen going down the river after Pereira’s boat passed.
“And from there, I haven’t had any hope,” Possuelo said. He said he has searched for two days with little government support but has found no sign of the men. He said he has given a report to police.
Possuelo did not provide the fisherman’s name. Federal police in Amazonas state didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Post was unable to independently confirm Possuelo’s account.
Indigenous leaders are asking for a more expansive effort to bring clarity to what happened to the two men. Marubo, the attorney, said the Indigenous union has prepared a report for authorities including the names of people they suspect were involved in the disappearances. They say the fisherman has fled into the forest.
Beto Marubo, a leader of the Marubo people, said the government needs to respond to the issue more forcefully. He called on Brazilian authorities to begin treating the disappearance not only as a search-and-rescue mission but also a criminal investigation.
“My frustration goes beyond just a slow search mission,” he said. “We need to know the motives and circumstances behind the disappearance of Dom and Bruno. These are armed gangs that are causing violence not only against Indigenous but also our partners. There needs to be investigation by police.”