The spot where British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous peoples expert Bruno Pereira were last seen as they sailed down the Itaquai River on June 5 is close to Brazil’s second-largest indigenous land , where 6,300 people live in 26 villages, 19 of them in total isolation.

The isolated valley of Javari has seen a sharp rise in crime a decade ago, a consequence of the weak hold of the Brazilian state on this territory of 85,000 km2, larger than Austria, according to sources consulted by AFP.

This security loophole has been exploited by drug traffickers, fishermen, illegal loggers and gold diggers, operating on lands that have been declared protected.

From the start of the search for the two men, whose fatal outcome is feared, the head of the police for the Amazonas region, Eduardo Alexandre, described the area as “quite dangerous”.

“The forest, by its nature, has always been a privileged area for trafficking because drugs can be camouflaged more easily than in other environments”, underlines Aiala Colares, geographer at the Federal University of Para and researcher specializing in the Amazon at the NGO Brazilian Forum for Public Security.

In the vastness of the dense Amazon rainforest, criss-crossed by rivers that flood some of the vegetation in certain months of the year, drug traffickers rely on the waterways to transport drugs, mainly cocaine from Peru and cannabis from Colombia, destined for the Brazilian market or continuing to resell them abroad, explains Colares.

The expert defines as “multidimensional” the action of gangs that operate and mix drug trafficking and environmental crimes such as wood smuggling and illegal fishing.

The main, “Os Crias”, dissident of the “Familia do Norte”, one of the largest criminal organizations in the Amazon, appeared in 2021 and controls the Brazilian side of the triple border and the waterways.

– “Organized crime”

“More and more criminals, more organized and armed, have taken advantage of the lack of state structure,” says Barbara Arisi, an anthropologist from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam who has worked with the villages of Javari since 2003, pointing to the penetration of drug trafficking in certain indigenous communities, such as the Tikuna.

The anthropologist compares it with the development of gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

“Drug trafficking offers many young people a life that they do not have the opportunity to reach. For money, many end up becoming mules or informants,” she explains.

Atalaia do Norte, where Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were based during their expedition, has the third worst human development index in Brazil, out of more than 5,000 municipalities, according to the latest census.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 with a promise to develop the Amazon, a territory he says is occupied by “poor Indians” on “rich lands”.

He replaced the leadership of the government agency for indigenous affairs, Funai, and placed at the head of the isolated tribes sector an evangelist pastor accused of ignoring the interests he is supposed to serve.

Funai’s base on the Itaquai River has been the scene of numerous shootings in recent years.

Bruno Pereira himself, as a Funai employee, helped the natives organize to defend their territory and had been the target of threats by loggers, miners and illegal fishermen who tried to encroach on the protected lands.

“What happened to Bruno and Dom is the result of the growth of organized crime, which is explained by the absence of the state,” said Antenor Vaz, head of Funai in Javari between 2006 and 2009.

Recalling the never-solved murder in 2019 of Maxiel Pereira dos Santos, head of operations against illegal loggers and fishermen at Funai, he recalls that “any citizen who raises his voice against illegality is exposed here”.