‘A whirlwind of sadness’: Search for Brazil’s missing couple continues even as hope evaporates

The men gathered around a campfire shortly after dawn, members of different indigenous groups united in their determination to find Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips.

“We are going to do everything possible to find them. We will not give up,” promised Fabrício Ferreira Amorim, one of the indigenous defenders coordinating the latest search mission for the two missing men.

Among the two dozen volunteers gathered in the jungle clearing that morning were members of four indigenous peoples from the Javari region of the Brazilian Amazon: the Mayuruna, the Marubo, the Kanamari and the Matis.

Cristóvão Negreiros, a veteran indigenous defender who works with Pereira and was reportedly traveling with the men the day they disappeared, urged volunteers not to lose hope.

“We are here to fight for Bruno and make sure this never happens again,” Negreiros told them as the group prepared to set off along the Itaquaí River on the seventh day of their search for the truth about what happened to Bruno. British and Brazilian journalist. Indigenous defender when they disappeared at dawn last Sunday.

The search for Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Brazilian Amazon.
The search for Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Brazilian Amazon. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Armed with machetes and hunting rifles and divided into six small motor boats, the men set off south along the river to the place where the pair are believed to have last been seen.

“Bruno wanted to defend us and teach us how to protect our territories,” said Binin Matis, a 31-year-old volunteer Pereira had taken under his wing. “Now we want to defend it by finding something.”

Exactly one week after Pereira and Phillips disappeared on their way back from a four-day information trip down the Itaquaí, hopes of finding them alive have all but evaporated.

“They are no longer with us,” Phillips’ Brazilian mother-in-law, a longtime Guardian contributor, wrote on Instagram on Saturday. “Their souls have joined those of so many others who gave their lives in defense of the jungle and indigenous peoples.”

Among the teams of indigenous volunteers who have been tirelessly spearheading the search process, there is also a growing realization that they will not be able to bring Pereira and Phillips home alive.


In recent days, as The Guardian has followed them deeper into the jungles of the region, the volunteers have increasingly referred to the missing men in the past tense.

On Sunday, rescue teams announced they had found a backpack, a laptop and a pair of sandals near the riverside home of Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, the fisherman police have in custody and are investigating the disappearances.

“It’s a whirlwind of anger and sadness,” said Luiz Fernandes de Oliveira Neto, a 39-year-old indigenous specialist who is part of the search operation.

However, that terrible realization has done nothing to weaken the determination of the members of the search team. They all knew Pereira and several had known Phillips in the days before he disappeared.

“He interviewed me and asked me what was going on in Javari so he could tell the world,” said Tumi Matis, who is part of an indigenous environmental monitoring group known by its Portuguese acronym “Evu.”

Shortly after 8 am on Saturday morning, the team set out from their “Evu Base” by the river to survey their latest search area: a body of water called Lago do Preguiça, or Lake of the Sloths.

Along the way they were bombarded by examples of the immense natural beauty that had drawn both Pereira and Phillips to the Amazon in the first place. Muddy channels filled with playful pink river dolphins that periodically burst from the depths as they chased after fish. An abundance of birds in spectacular shades of white, blue and red.

About an hour later, one of the boats turned off its engine when Binin Matis saw something strange floating in the water. “Kapët! Kapet! he yelled at the ferryman, the word for alligator in the Pano language spoken by his people.

Ten meters away, a dead alligator lay belly up. Feasting vultures crashed into the branches above, frightened or perhaps enraged at the interruption of their meal.

The team looking for Pereria and Phillips for the police tape.
The team searches for Pereira and Phillips near the police tape. Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Half an hour later, two of the military policemen who have been traveling with the indigenous group to provide security saw something else that seemed suspicious: a sunken red canoe. Officers searched it for traces of the two men, but again found nothing.

For three more hours, the group continued to advance through igarapés, narrow and winding channels that can only be accessed by canoes or other small boats. In the flooded forests they hacked and clawed their way through thick vines and thorny branches. But beyond the occasional fishing net, there was almost no sign of human activity, let alone the two missing men.

The afternoon brought discouraging news for the indigenous search team, who have now spent a grueling seven days combing the region’s rivers and forests for clues.

As they headed toward the river to continue their hunt, the men passed federal police forensic science teams that had come to seal off part of the riverbank where Pereira and Phillips are now believed to have been ambushed or otherwise attacked.

A forensic investigator placed bright yellow tape around a thicket of semi-submerged trees. Behind her, the officers took pictures of something, perhaps a footprint or object, on the forest floor.

On the river, indigenous scouts stared grimly at the scene, where the bright yellow police line contrasted with the red berries of the munguba trees in the jungle behind.

“Federal Police,” the message on the tape said. “No passing.”

A crowdfunding campaign has been launched to support the families of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira. Donate here in english or here in Portuguese.


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