RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil is investigating allegations that a Gainesville fishing tour operator was using expeditions in the Amazon to cover up the sexual exploitation of underage indigenous girls, the country's minister for women's rights said Monday.
"The country cannot stand idly by before allegations of this sort," Iriny Lopes told the Associated Press.
She said she was meeting with the minister for human rights, Maria do Rosario Nunes, and seeking information from investigators and prosecutors on the case to decide whether to establish a commission to look into the matter.
The case hinges on allegations made by four Brazilian women against Richard Schair, the former operator of a fishing tour company called Wet-a-line, which sold trips on the Amazon. The company closed down in 2009.
The human rights group Equality Now and a Georgia law firm filed a law suit in U.S. federal court against Schair in June. According to the suit, Schair recruited indigenous girls by promising them a chance to earn money on the boat.
Once on board, the suit says the girls were given drugs, alcohol and coerced into performing sex acts with the tourists. The plaintiffs, all four unnamed, were between 12 and 17 years old when the acts allegedly took place.
Schair has repeatedly denied the charges.
"I am innocent of the allegations and the events will show that," he said in a phone interview. Earlier he called the allegations an attempt by a competitor to ruin him.
Schair began operating the tours in 1998. He ran weeklong trips in the region's rivers aboard his boat, the Amazon Santana.
According to the suit, he began to actively recruit sex tourism customers from the United States to come on the tours.
The case is the first in which alleged victims of trafficking use the U.S.'s Trafficking Victims Protection Act to seek damages from a sex tour operation.
Last week, Schair filed a motion asking for the lawsuit to be stayed pending the resolution of criminal investigations in the United States and Brazil.
Police in Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, are investigating the matter but did not return calls.
The U.S. Department of Justice is also conducting a criminal investigation into the matter, but a spokeswoman said they could not comment. An attorney representing Schair in the federal criminal investigation, Solomon L. Wisenberg, was traveling and not able to comment immediately.