Brazilian police open criminal investigation in search of British journalist

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RIO DE JANEIRO, June 7 (Reuters) – Brazilian police have opened a criminal investigation and questioned at least four witnesses believed to be among the last to see a missing British journalist and indigenous expert in a remote and lawless part of the Amazon Jungle sunday.

Guilherme Torres, head of the interior department of the Amazonas state civil police, told Reuters in an interview that police had opened a criminal investigation and interviewed four witnesses while also seeking to locate the journalist, freelancer Dom Phillips, and his companion Bruno Pereira, a former senior official of the federal indigenous agency Funai.

Torres said Pereira had recently received a threatening letter from a local fisherman that police were trying to locate.

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He said his colleagues interviewed two fishermen as witnesses on Monday, and two more interviewed on Tuesday. The first two witnesses had provided no useful information, and Torres did not yet have details of the second two interviews.

“We are indeed working with the assumption that a crime could have occurred, but there is another, much bigger possibility that they are lost,” Torres said. “Now our priority is to find them alive, especially in these first hours. At the same time, a criminal investigation has been opened to see if there has been a crime committed.”

Both the Brazilian Navy and Army have dispatched search teams in boats and helicopters to the area, with support from federal and state police.

Pereira and Phillips, who have written for the Guardian, the Washington Post and others, disappeared Sunday while on a reporting trip to the Javari Valley.

The Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), which announced the couple’s disappearance, criticized Brazilian security forces for taking so long to deploy search teams.

The navy sent a launch with men up the river on Tuesday, but they arrived after dark. The army dispatched troops on Tuesday, sending dozens of soldiers in river boats to patrol the streets of nearby villages with weapons ready.

The vast region, which borders Peru and is home to the largest number of uncontacted indigenous people in the world, is threatened by illegal miners, loggers, hunters and coca gangs that manufacture the raw material for cocaine.

Torres said he could not rule out that their disappearance was linked to gangs operating in the lawless region who may have ambushed them.

UNIVAJA representatives said Pereira and Phillips were with an indigenous patrol that was threatened by gunmen on Saturday. The couple recorded the confrontation on a cellphone.

The disappearance of the two men, who both had years of experience working in the complex and inhospitable Amazon rainforest, has sparked global concern from human rights groups, environmentalists, politicians and advocates of freedom of the press.

In a moving television interview, Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, urged authorities to step up their search efforts, “because we still have some hope of finding them.”

“Even if I can’t find the love of my life alive, please find him,” she added.

Pereira’s family released a statement calling for a robust search operation, adding that “we are also very hopeful that there has been an accident with the boat and they are waiting for help.”

President Jair Bolsonaro, who has faced tough questions from Phillips at press conferences about policies that have weakened environmental law enforcement, said in a television interview on Tuesday that the two men were “living on an adventure that never is not recommended”.

“It could have been an accident, they could have been executed, anything could have happened,” he said. “I hope, and we pray to God, that they will be found soon.”

Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara, named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, said in New York that violence against Amazon tribes was out of control. She spoke with John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s envoy on climate change, who she said was shocked and promised to investigate the disappearance of the two men.

Indigenous patrols, who have complained of weaker environmental law enforcement since Bolsonaro took office, calling for fewer restrictions on tribal lands, regularly clash with miners and illegal hunters in the Valley of Javari.

Phillips was looking for a book about the Amazon and its conservationists. Pereira has been working with UNIVAJA and other indigenous groups independently since he was removed from his position at Funai under Bolsonaro.

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Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter, Anthony Boadle and Eduardo Simoes; Editing by Brad Haynes and Howard Goller

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