Atalaia do Norte (Brazil) (AFP) – The pirarucu is an impressive fish: a huge Amazonian monster with red and black scales the size of serving spoons.
Yet it is only a fish. How could this have resulted in the murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira?
Police say Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41, were shot on June 5 after returning from a search trip to Brazil’s remote Javari Valley.
At first glance, the jungle-covered region near the Peruvian and Colombian borders appears to be one of the last untouched wilderness areas, home to a sprawling indigenous reservation with the largest concentration of uncontacted tribes on Earth.
But the double murder laid bare growing violence in the region fueled by illegal fishing, logging, mining and drug trafficking.
Pereira had received death threats for his anti-poaching work on the reserve, where non-natives are banned from hunting and fishing.
“He led a major crackdown on illegal fishing. All of these guys (the poachers in the area) knew Bruno,” says Orlando Possuelo, 37, who worked with Pereira to coordinate indigenous anti-poaching patrols, a job which earned him death threats. , too.
Investigators say Pereira and Phillips were traveling down the winding Itaquai River in a small boat when a group sped up from behind and fired at them.
Police have identified eight suspects and arrested three so far.
Residents of Atalaia do Norte, a sleepy river town near the northeastern edge of the reserve, say all three are poachers illegally fishing indigenous territory for pirarucu, a protected species that is the largest fish. freshwater from South America.
“Everyone here knows”
Atalaia fishermen say poaching pirarucu – a tasty and coveted fish that can grow to 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet) and weigh up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) – is a highly profitable business linked to traffickers drug dealers operating in Peru and Colombia.
Traffickers are reportedly using the black market fish trade to launder drug money – part of what the Brazilian Forum for Public Security recently called the “complex national and transnational criminal chains that operate in different economies” in the Amazon. .
“What happened to Bruno and Dom is the result of an increase in organized crime, which in turn is explained by the absence of the state,” said Antenor Vaz, ex-chief of operations of the Brazilian indigenous affairs agency FUNAI in the Javari Valley.
The alleged link to drug trafficking has raised the question of whether the suspects acted alone.
The federal police said Friday that yes, ruling out the involvement of a “mastermind or criminal organization”.
The statement infuriated the indigenous rights group where Pereira worked, UNIVAJA, which accused police of ignoring “considerable” evidence that a “powerful criminal organization” was behind the killings.
“Everyone here knows that organized crime was involved,” Paulo Marubo, director of UNIVAJA, told AFP.
At the Atalaia Fish Market, a noisy hangar with concrete floors and white tile stalls, the pirarucu has been missing since Phillips and Pereira disappeared.
Some pirarucu sales are actually legal – there are six local lakes outside the native reserve where restricted fishing is permitted.
But much of the pirarucu on the market is probably illegal.
A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that 83% of illegal fish seized in Brazil from 2012 to 2019 were pirarucu.
With the military, federal police and the world’s media in town to investigate the men’s disappearance, fishermen are taking no chances on the pirarucu these days, even though landing one of the giants can net hundreds dollars – money most families desperately need. region, one of the poorest in Brazil.
“Legal fishermen are even scared to come out right now, with the army here and everyone blaming us for this atrocity,” says Roberto Pereira da Costa, 49, president of the local fishermen’s association.
Legal fishers are unfairly vilified, he says.
“You can see the difference between the illegal fishermen and us. They have big boats, fast motors, they don’t just catch 15 kilos of fish to feed their families, they try to take everything they can.”
“A Bigger Story”
In December, Al Jazeera English journalist Monica Yanakiew joined Pereira on an expedition like the one Phillips was accompanying.
His crew even captured him warning the fisherman who is now the prime suspect in the case not to fish on native land.
Poachers became “furious” when Pereira’s patrols seized their fish, Yanakiew says.
But “it’s a bigger story than that,” she says.
Pereira would not have needed to mount independent patrols if President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration had not drastically reduced law enforcement operations by FUNAI and environmental authorities, critics say.
“The fact that the government has turned a blind eye to everything that is going on has given power” to the criminals, Yanakiew says.
“They think they can get away with murder.”
© 2022 AFP