Weekend Herald

Murder in the Amazon

Mafia probe over Sir Peter Blake killing

-

Potential mafia connection­s to the murder of Sir Peter Blake on the Amazon — and the attempted slaying of fellow Kiwi environmen­talist Pete Bethune in Brazil — are investigat­ed in a powerful new film-length documentar­y.

Blake was gunned down after armed bandits boarded his exploratio­n vessel, Seamaster, deep in the Amazon in December 2001. He was on a voyage looking into global warming and pollution, as well as trying to raise awareness about attacks on the environmen­t along the Amazon.

Members of a group of pirates — known locally as “river rats” — were later caught, charged and convicted over his death. But questions remain whether the group was acting alone, or whether they had been hired by mafia figures trying to silence someone who might reveal illegal gold mining, forestry or drug-running in the area.

Sixteen years later Bethune was lucky to survive a knife attack on a street in Brazil while carrying out his own investigat­ion into whether Blake’s murder was linked to figures involved in illegal gold mining.

The search for more informatio­n on both attacks — as well as highlighti­ng the plight of the Amazon environmen­t — are the subject of Garden of Evil; a documentar­y written, produced and directed by veteran

The film exposes the threats of ruthless protection­ism, greed, unbridled street crime and river piracy.

Larry Keating

Kiwi journalist Larry Keating.

It features a trio of prominent investigat­ive journalist­s — Donal MacIntyre, Sam Cowie and Caio Vilela — and took four years to produce, including months working on location in the Amazon.

“The film exposes the threats of ruthless protection­ism, greed, unbridled street crime and river piracy, Keating said ahead of its world premiere at the Doc Edge Film Festival in Auckland tonight.

“Sir Peter Blake and Pete Bethune are examples of the thousands who have suffered at the hands of organised criminals in the Amazon in recent years. In fact, more than 200 guardians of the rainforest were murdered during the making of The Garden of Evil.”

Keating first thought about working on a documentar­y about Blake’s death after watching Death of a Hero;

an episode in the BBC’s awardwinni­ng MacIntyre Investigat­es.

MacIntyre had been meant to be on board the Seamaster on the night of the attack to work on a pre-planned documentar­y on Blake’s life and conservati­on work, but he and his crew’s arrival had been delayed after they missed a flight to Brazil from Central America.

Death of a Hero follows MacIntyre as he belatedly journeyed up the Amazon.

“He had learnt, and I think the world knew, that most of the environmen­tal activists who had been killed over the years . . . and quite a few of them had been outsiders . . . most of them had been killed by organised crime in a sense; be they farmers deforestin­g for land grabbing, or the mafia who were controllin­g a lot of the timbers and the drugs that were coming out of the Amazon.”

In 2017, Cowie interviewe­d Ricardo Tavares — who is serving a 38-year prison sentence for fatally shooting Blake. Tavares told the English journalist that there was more to say about the attack on Seamaster.

Brazilian media had previously speculated that mafia figures were behind the attack.

Keating travelled to London to meet MacIntyre to discuss the merits of his idea, which would later become The Garden of Evil.

“He did believe there was a very good chance there could be somebody behind it and he would lead an investigat­ive team: himself, Sam Cowie and Caio Vilela, who was our

fixer, to really drill down into what that possibilit­y was,” Keating said.

Tavares would agree to be interviewe­d on camera by Cowie.

But when given the opportunit­y to offer up fresh informatio­n on Blake’s death – and if anyone else was involved in planning it – Keating said Tavares “clammed up, he wanted to talk more about his childhood and his belief that he could have been a great football player”.

He also told Cowie that his lawyer “had instructed him not to talk at all”. “As Donal MacIntyre says, the guy is not really going to finger anybody. His life would be at stake in the prison if he was a grass,” Keating said.

“There is still a lot of confusion [over whether Blake’s killing had been ordered], given that nearly everybody who is killed in the Amazon chasing or exposing illicit trade — be it in timber, drugs, or whatever — is [killed by] organised crime trying to protect their turf.”

Keating said The Garden of Evil had been “very challengin­g”.

As well as investigat­ing the potential motives behind the attacks on Blake and Bethune, The Garden of Evil set out to shine a light on the reality of the environmen­tal battles facing the Amazon, and the locals living alongside it. “It was really about the message that Sir Peter left, that he felt that the world probably needs to get behind saving the Amazon.

“When you think about what Blake’s message was, it was about hope. It was adventure, sharing an experience so others could love an environmen­t.”

Prior to the start of filming an invitation was extended to Blake’s son, James, to join the production team. It was rejected.

During their travels Keating said it was clear that “corruption at very, very high levels is rife”.

“It is a fairly lawless part of the world,” he said.

“We were talking to the police chief, who said to us that the cops who work for him doff their hat at five o’clock after supposedly chasing down the very guys causing the corruption at the very high levels in the Amazon, put on another hat and go and work for the very guys they were chasing during the day.”

Keating said security had been a top priority while in Brazil, and not just on their travels on the Amazon.

He revealed the only time they were concerned for their well-being was when they took Bethune back to the area where he was nearly stabbed to death in 2017.

Bethune had been attacked by two men in broad daylight. Including one who stabbed him in the chest.

During the making of The Garden of Evil the crew and Bethune were about 20 metres from “the point of where he actually fought for his life” when their security ordered them to leave immediatel­y. “We had been spotted. That was a pretty nervous moment,” Keating said.

Keating said he believed Blake was well aware of security risks in the Amazon ahead of the fateful voyage. His crew included a former US Navy Seal, who was in charge of security.

Blake had talked in a documentar­y by Blake Expedition­s about the potential dangers of working in the Amazon and the need to have “security on board 24/7 . . . that anything could happen”.

But in a tragic twist of fate the exUS special forces operator was among crew members offloaded from Seamaster to reduce the ship’s weight ahead of navigating a stretch of the Amazon that was not very deep.

The security officer, and other crew, were continuing up the river in another boat to rejoin Blake.

“I guess they [Blake Expedition­s] felt confident that they had got that far up the river with no trouble at all,” Keating said. ”[But] that last night trouble met them.”

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ?? The ?? Making the documentar­y, from left, Jake Bryant, Neil Stichbury, Larry Keating and Emanuela Evangelist­a with children at Xixuau.
The Making the documentar­y, from left, Jake Bryant, Neil Stichbury, Larry Keating and Emanuela Evangelist­a with children at Xixuau.
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Security was a top priority while the documentar­y was being made in Brazil; Caio Vilela talking to a Munduruku spokeswoma­n en route to see where illegal logging on their land is happening; the team were embedded with the police for a raid and captured 50 murders near where Peter Blake and Pete Bethune were attacked.
Security was a top priority while the documentar­y was being made in Brazil; Caio Vilela talking to a Munduruku spokeswoma­n en route to see where illegal logging on their land is happening; the team were embedded with the police for a raid and captured 50 murders near where Peter Blake and Pete Bethune were attacked.
 ?? Photo (main) / Ivor Wilkins ?? The late Sir Peter Blake on board Seamaster; the documentar­y-makers lived with the Munduruku tribe in Para, Brazil for a week (below).
Photo (main) / Ivor Wilkins The late Sir Peter Blake on board Seamaster; the documentar­y-makers lived with the Munduruku tribe in Para, Brazil for a week (below).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand