The Brazilian government sent security forces to a remote area near the border with Peru after armed men attacked a guard post set up to protect indigenous people living in isolation in the western state of Acre.
Guard post personnel reported that about 40 armed men, whom Brazilian officials described as “paramilitaries” and who are believed to have been transporting drugs from Peru, overran the guard post on July 23, according to Brazilian news reports.
Members of an Asháninka community three hours away by river had reported seeing a group of armed men on July 11.
The Xinane guard post is on the Envira River about 20 miles from the Peruvian border, in an area inhabited by at least four indigenous groups that avoid contact with the outside world, according to Maria Emília Coelho, a Brazilian journalist in contact with members of the governmental National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do Índio, FUNAI) at the guard post.
Aerial photos of the area released in February showed adults and children, some with their bodies painted with red and black vegetable dyes, outside a thatch-roofed dwelling and in a garden of banana trees.
Initial reports about the attack on the guard post said the indigenous people had disappeared from the area and that there could have been a massacre, but Coelho said there were no indications of a confrontation and that officials who flew over the area saw intact thatch-roofed buildings, called malocas, in areas inhabited by the group.
“We believe the Indians didn’t appear because they were afraid of the helicopters and planes that have been flying over the area in the past few days,” FUNAI president Márcio Meira told Brazilian media.
It took security forces nearly a week to reach the remote area, according to Brazilian news reports. On August 3, police detained Joaquim Antônio Custódio Fadista, a Portuguese citizen. Fadista, whom FUNAI officials described as a drug trafficker, had been caught in the area in March by a FUNAI official, turned over to police and deported to Peru, but apparently returned to retrieve a package of drugs, officials said.
Peru’s Foreign Ministry did not return a phone call requesting comment.
The area along the border of the western Brazilian state of Acre and the eastern Peruvian regions of Madre de Dios and Ucayali is home to the largest concentration of Indigenous Peoples in isolation in Amazonia.
“But there is practically no presence of the state in the area,” said Francisco Estremadoyro, executive director of Pro Purús, a non-profit organization that works with native communities in the area.
Some of the nomadic groups are probably descendants of indigenous people who fled enslavement by loggers and rubber tappers in the early and mid-1900s. Two reserves were established on the Peruvian side of the border to protect territories inhabited by isolated groups, but Estremadoyro called them “paper parks” that are unprotected against incursions by illegal loggers or drug traffickers.
The Envira River, where the attack occurred, “is a route known to be used by drug traffickers,” Estremadoyro said. “We have reports of similar situations not only along that river, but in neighboring areas.”
Drug traffickers often recruit people from indigenous communities to carry drugs, because they can travel more easily through the forest and other communities, he said.
“Indigenous people in that area have been completely abandoned by the state,” with little opportunity for health care, education or employment, he said. When drug traffickers offer to hire them, “some fall for it.”
Estremadoyro said there are at least three different isolated ethnic groups on the Peruvian side of the border, distinguished by their different styles of haircut, body paint and weapons.
The groups are “traditionally very territorial, and they defend themselves from each other,” he said. “When they are pressured by loggers or drug traffickers, they flee and invade the territory of other groups, resulting in conflicts and sometimes in deaths.”
Little is known about the groups, because there is no centralized database of sightings, he said. Loggers sometimes report having seen nomadic people, and there have been some aerial sightings as well.
Groups have been moving into areas along the Purús River where they have not been seen before, probably because of incursions into their traditional territories by loggers and drug traffickers, Estremadoyro said.
In a news release, Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an organization that defends the rights of tribal peoples, called for steps to be taken to prevent further incursions into the area.
“There is no knowing how many tribal peoples the drugs trade has wiped out in the past,” Corry said in the news release. “The world’s attention should be on these uncontacted Indians, just as it was at the beginning of this year when they were first captured on film.”