Items owned by missing journalist and indigenous expert found in Brazilian Amazon, some partially submerged, police say

Brazil Amazon
Federal officers arrive at a pier with items found during a search by indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British freelance journalist Dom Phillips in Atalaia do Norte, Brazil, June 12, 2022. Amazon area where Pereira and Phillips disappeared a week ago, they said firefighters.

Edmar Barros / AP


Search teams found a backpack, laptop and other personal items belonging to indigenous specialist Bruno Pereira and British freelance journalist Dom Phillips, who disappeared in a remote area of ​​the Brazilian Amazon a week ago, the Federal Police said on Sunday night.

Phillips’ backpack was discovered Sunday afternoon tied to a tree that was half-submerged, a firefighter told reporters in Atalaia do Norte, the town closest to the search area, which is close to the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land. It is the end of the rainy season in the region and part of the forest is flooded.

Federal Police officers took the items by boat to Atalaia do Norte in the late afternoon. In a statement a few hours later, they said they had identified the belongings of the two disappeared, such as Pereira’s health card and clothes.

A tarp from the boat used by the men was found Saturday by Matis volunteers, members of a newly contacted indigenous group, one of them told the Associated Press.

“We used a small canoe to go out into the shallow water. Then we found a tarp, shorts and a spoon,” said Binin Beshu Matis.

After this discovery, the search teams focused their efforts on that location on the Itaquaí River.

Search operation for missing British journalist in the Amazon jungle
Police officers and members of the rescue team are on a boat on June 12, 2022 during the search operation for British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who disappeared while reporting in a remote and lawless part of the Amazon rainforest near from the border with Peru, Atalaia do Norte, Brazil.

BRUNO KELLY / REUTERS


Earlier, the police reported find traces of blood in the boat of a fisherman who is trapped as the only suspect and organic matter of apparent human origin in the river. Both materials are under forensic analysis and no further details were provided.

Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were last seen on June 5 near the entrance to the indigenous territory, which borders Peru and Colombia. They returned alone by boat along the Itaquaí River to Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived.

This area has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents. Violence has grown as drug gangs fight for control of waterways to transport cocaine, although Itaquaí is not a known drug trafficking route.

Authorities said a main line in the police investigation into the disappearance pointed to an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in the Vale do Javari reserve, which is Brazil’s second-largest indigenous territory.

One of the most valuable targets is the world’s largest scaled freshwater fish, the arapaima. It weighs up to 440 kilos and can reach 3 meters in length. The fish is sold in nearby cities, such as Letícia, in Colombia, Tabatinga, in Brazil, and Iquitos, in Peru.

The only known suspect in the disappearances is fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, who is in prison. According to reports from indigenous people who were with Pereira and Phillips, he brandished a rifle at them the day before the pair disappeared.

The suspect denies any wrongdoing and said military police tortured him to try to get a confession, his family told the Associated Press.

Pereira, who previously led the local office of the indigenous government agency known as FUNAI, participated in several operations against illegal fishing. In such operations, as a rule, fishing gear is seized or destroyed, while fishermen are fined and briefly detained. Only indigenous people can legally fish in their territories.

Search operation for missing British journalist in the Amazon jungle
Indigenous people helping rescuers sitting on a boat on June 12, 2022 during the search operation for British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who disappeared while reporting in a remote and lawless part of the Amazon rainforest, close to the border with Peru. North Watchtower, Brazil.

BRUNO KELLY / REUTERS


“The motive for the crime is a personal fight over the inspection of fishing,” the mayor of Atalaia do Norte, Denis Paiva, speculated to journalists, without giving further details.

The AP had access to information that the police shared with indigenous leaders. But while some police officers, the mayor and others in the region link the disappearances of the pair to the “fish mafia”, the Federal Police does not rule out other lines of investigation, such as drug trafficking.

Fisherman Laurimar Alves Lopes, who lives on the banks of the Itaquaí, told AP that he gave up fishing within the indigenous territory after being detained three times. He said he suffered beatings and starvation in prison.

Lopes, who has five children, said he only fishes close to home to feed his family, not to sell.

“I made a lot of mistakes, I stole a lot of fish. When you see your son dying of hunger, you go get it where there is. So I would go there to steal fish to support my family. But then I said: I’m going to end it, I’m going to plant”, said in an interview on his boat.

Lopes said he was taken three times to the Federal Police headquarters in Tabatinga and beaten and left without food.

In 2019, Funai employee Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was shot dead in Tabatinga in front of his wife and daughter-in-law. Three years later, the crime remains unsolved. His colleagues at Funai told AP they believe the murder is linked to his work against fishermen and poachers.

Rubber tappers founded all the riverside communities in the region. In the 1980s, however, rubber extraction declined and they turned to logging. This also ended when the federal government created the Indigenous Land of Vale do Javari in 2001. Fishing has become the main economic activity since then.

Illegal fishing in the vast Vale do Javari lasts about a month, said Manoel Felipe, a local historian and professor who also served as a councilor. For every illegal foray, a fisherman can earn at least $3,000.

“The fishermen’s financiers are Colombian,” Felipe said. “In Leticia, everyone got mad at Bruno. This is no joke. It’s possible they sent a gunman to kill him.”

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