The Spanish government has deployed 300 members of the army and National Police close to the area where a US tourist disappeared in April while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
The small village of Castrillo de los Polvazares, in the northern province of León, is being searched by land and air using off-road vehicles, horses, trucks, trained dogs and a helicopter.
Denise Pikka Thiem, 41, went missing on April 5 in the nearby town of Astorga as she was preparing to complete another leg of her solo journey to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the apostle Saint James are said to be buried.
Underground experts have been looking inside the 100 or so wells that dot the landscape for signs of Thiem
The initial investigation yielded no arrests, and the case seemed at a dead end. Police chiefs have failed to provide any clues that might explain why the search has suddenly and conspicuously been reactivated.
This summer, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy received a letter from US Republican Senator John McCain offering the FBI’s assistance to solve the case of the missing Arizona woman. The Spanish Interior Ministry admitted that the investigation is considered “a priority.”
Spanish National Police head Ignacio Cosidó has also said that Thiem’s disappearance is “a priority matter” for law enforcement agencies and that a “very thorough” search is being carried out.
On Thursday, the extent of the renewed investigation effort was plain to see.
Three members of the National Police’s Mounted Unit combed the route along the road to Fontanillas, which runs parallel to the provincial 6304 highway, in Castrillo de los Polvazares. Three military vehicles, including two emergency trucks, were stationed nearby.
Down the hill, every crossroads in this area covered in holm oak and brush was being watched by police officers in armored vehicles.
Meanwhile, underground experts have been looking inside each of the 100 or so wells that dot the landscape for signs of Thiem. The US tourist had been planning to reach the municipality of El Ganso, 14 kilometers from Astorga, and spend the night at a hostel there, according to messages she posted on social networking sites.
Exactly at the halfway point, seven kilometers from the church of Santa Marta, where she was last seen, trained dogs could be seen sniffing the ground on Thursday.
Sources familiar with the investigation said the search area has been reduced thanks to witness reports. There is a prime suspect in the case, but police would offer no further information.
But in Castrillo de los Polvazares, people have a theory that the police are searching for an outsider, a man of around 40, who moved to the village a couple of seasons ago and built himself a house on an adjacent estate. This individual was already questioned early in the case.
“He used to go down the Camino de Santiago to Astorga on his bicycle and harassed some of the female pilgrims,” said a retired farmer, sitting on a bench with three friends under the shade of a tree.
“He sniffed them out,” added a bench companion. “He hasn’t been seen around here for eight days or so.”
All three men made it abundantly clear that the suspect is not a friendly man and that he has had a few confrontations with local residents in the past.
The mayor of Astorga, Arsenio García Fuentes, said that he has no more information than what he has read in the press, and insists that the Camino – a route undertaken by thousands of people every year – is perfectly safe.
As night fell on the hillside on Thursday, a truck could be seen delivering portable toilets to the law enforcement officers stationed below, suggesting that the search is expected to take quite some time.
English version by Susana Urra