Did Drug Violence Eliminate an ‘Uncontacted’ Amazon Tribe?

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Members of an uncontacted Amazon Basin tribe and their dwellings are seen during a flight over the Brazilian state of Acre along the border with Peru in this May 2008 photo.

After a group of suspected drug dealers attacked guards in the Amazon Basin, Brazilian Indian officials now can’t find one tribe that hasn’t ever had contact with the outside world. The concern is the the tribe’s first contact with the so-called civilized world wasn’t all that civilized.

Brazil’s Indian Affairs Department set up a five-person guide post on the shores of the Zinane River, about 15 miles from the Brazil border with Peru and more than 100 miles from the nearest Brazilian town, to help protect a tribe of Panoan Indians. The Panoans were first photographed from the air in 2008 and have never been contacted by the outside world.

But after the guard post was attacked by a group of armed men, government officials haven’t spotted any signs of the tribe. In fact, Carlos Lisboa Travassos, head of the Isolated Indians Department, told local media the guards found a backpack belonging to one of the armed men containing a broken arrow, possibly from one of the members of the tribe.

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A LiveScience report says that guard post head Jose Carlos Meirelles has returned to the area and found groups of men armed with sub-machine guns and rifles in the forest near the base.

The guards say they believe the men were from Peru and were looking for a route to smuggle drugs into Peru through the Brazilian state of Acre, or were investigating clearing the area to grow coca, the plant used to make cocaine. This claim was bolstered by the fact that police have detained a Portuguese national with past drug trafficking arrests in connection with the attack.

Police have also found a 44-pound package of cocaine in the area, meaning the old tribal grounds and local rivers could be new smuggling grounds.

The Brazilian government first released photos of the tribe in February, showing members in body paint, thatched dwellings and even gardens.

According to a BBC report, Terri Aquino, an anthropologist, says the police and army didn’t help fend off the attackers and those in the guard post relied on Ashaninka and Kaxinawa Indians to help protect them.

“They’re coming at us from three sides, we have nowhere to run,” says Travassos. “This situation could be one of the biggest blows we have ever seen in the protection of uncontacted Indians in recent decades.”

For more information on “uncontacted” tribes, check out Survival International’s site.

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Tim Newcomb is a contributor for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.