Accused Americans could be stuck in Brazil for months

Andrea Stone
July 5, 2009
USA Today

Three U.S. graduate students arrested last month for suspected poaching and visa violations could be stranded in a remote corner of Brazil for months as their case goes through the courts, their lawyer says.

University of Arizona geoscientists Michael McGlue, 31, and Mark Tress, 48, and University of Minnesota-Duluth student Kelly Wendt, 26, were arrested by federal police June 16 while working on a climate change project with the University of the State of Sao Paulo. The Americans spent eight nights in jail before being released on bail June 26. Police confiscated their passports as well as computers, research equipment, cellphones and cash.

Roberto Lins, the men’s Brazilian lawyer, says the students may not go before a judge for six months and could face up to five years in prison if convicted of illegally prospecting for minerals.

The researchers “had permission, but everything was very informal,” Lins said. They did not have “written permission” to do research in the Pantanal region, one of the world’s largest freshwater wetlands.

Foreign poachers have long stolen minerals, plants and wildlife from Brazil’s Pantanal region, says Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. At a time of heightened nationalism, “trafficking commodities is a very sensitive matter,” he said.

The men entered the country on tourist visas. Researchers are required to obtain scientific visas.

In a phone interview from their hotel room in Corumba, the remote southwest city where they are staying, the men said they were preparing their defense, which includes letters of support from Brazilian scientific groups. The University of Arizona is paying their expenses.

Wendt, a graduate geology student on his first scientific field trip abroad, said the team was on a two-week project to collect sediment cores from a lake bed when federal police appeared by boat at their camp. “It came as kind of a shock,” he said. “These guys showed up and started going through our stuff.”

The Americans and two Brazilian colleagues were taken to Corumba and jailed. The Brazilians were released the next day, but the U.S. researchers spent more than a week behind bars.

McGlue, on his third trip to the area, said the researchers were “acting in good faith” and believed their Brazilian partners had secured necessary permits.

The local university said Brazil’s environmental protection agency approved the project and Brazilian scientists have sent letters of support to local media.

“This is an unfortunate misunderstanding,” said University of Arizona spokesman Johnny Cruz. He said the university did not have a formal signed agreement with its Sao Paulo counterpart but that was “not unusual for research collaborations with universities abroad.” Cruz said university officials thought tourist visas “would be sufficient.”

State Department spokeswoman Laura Tischler said U.S. diplomats had spoken with the men but suggested there was little they could do.

“The traveler really needs to check what the requirements are by checking the embassy websites,” she said. “Once you travel and are in another country, you are subject to local law.”

Contributing: Associated Press