Pair’s disappearance in Brazil’s Amazon tied to ‘fish mafia’

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ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — 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. They were both in Sao Rafael. The men were supposed to return by boat to Atalaia Do Norte, but they never reached their destination.

After a slow start, the army, the navy, civil defense, state police and Indigenous volunteers have been mobilized in the search. Federal police stated that they are still analysing human remains found in the same area as the disappearances on Saturday. There were no further details.

The scheme is run by local businessmen, who pay fishermen to enter the Javari Valley, catch fish, and deliver it to them. The arapaima, which is the largest freshwater fish in the world with scales and weighs over 330 gms, is one of the most sought-after targets. It weighs up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and can reach 3 meters (10 feet). It is available for sale in several cities nearby, such as 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. Pereira and Phillips claim that he pointed a gun at them on the day of the disappearance. 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 local bureau of the government’s Indigenous agency, known as FUNAI, has taken part in several operations against illegal fishing. These operations usually result in the confiscation or destruction of fishing equipment, and the temporary detention of fishermen. Only Indigenous people can legally fish on their territory.

“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. Federal police are not ruling out the possibility of other avenues of investigation. Some police officers, including the mayor, have linked the disappearances of the two men to “fish mafia.” There is a lot of narcotrafficking in the area.

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. According to him, he was subjected to beatings and starvation while in prison.

“I made many mistakes, I stole a lot of fish. You don’t want your child to starve if you can see it happening. To support my family, I’d go to the sea to steal fish. He said, “I’m going put an end to that. I’m planning to plant.” During an interview aboard 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 claimed he was wrongly accused of having hunted in an Indigenous region this time. Lopes claimed he was sent to Tabatinga after spending a night at the FUNAI base.

In 2019, Santos was gunned down in Tabatinga in front of his wife and daughter-in-law. The crime is still unsolved three years later. According to FUNAI, his colleagues said that the crime was linked with him working against poachers and fishermen.

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. According to him, he fishes only near his house for his family’s food and not to 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. Since then, fishing has been the major economic activity.

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. Bruno was the cause of all anger in Leticia. It’s not an easy 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. Talk to anyone today, and they will tell you that he must take arms. He said that it was different from the past.

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