ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — Brazil’s search for an indigenous expert and journalist who disappeared in a troubled area of the Amazon a week ago has advanced with the discovery of a backpack, laptop and other belongings of men submerged in a river.
The objects were found on Sunday afternoon and were transported by boat by federal police agents to Atalaia do Norte, the town closest to the search. In a statement on Sunday evening, police said they identified the items as belonging to the two missing men, including a health card and clothing from Bruno Pereira, the Brazilian indigenous expert.
The backpack, which was identified as belonging to freelance journalist Dom Phillips of Britain, was found tied to a half-submerged tree, a firefighter told reporters in Atalaia do Norte. It is the end of the rainy season in the region and part of the forest is flooded.
The development came a day after police reported finding traces of blood in the boat of a fisherman who is under arrest as the sole suspect in the disappearance. Officers also found apparent human-made organic material in the river. The materials are being analyzed.
Search teams who found the laptop and other items on Sunday had focused their efforts around a spot in the Itaquai River where a tarp from the boat used by the missing men was found on Saturday by volunteers from the Indigenous group Matis.
“We used a small canoe to go into the shallow waters. Then we found a tarp, shorts and a spoon,” one of the volunteers, Binin Beshu Matis, told The Associated Press.
Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were last seen June 5 near the entrance to the Javari Valley indigenous territory, which borders Peru and Colombia. They were returning alone by boat on the Itaquai to Atalaia do Norte but never arrived.
This area has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents. Violence has increased as drug gangs fight for control of waterways to ship cocaine, despite the Itaquai not being a known drug trafficking route.
Authorities said one of the main lines of the police investigation into the disappearance has exposed an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in the Javari Valley Reserve, which is the second largest territory. native to Brazil.
One of the most valuable targets is the world’s largest freshwater fish with scales, the arapaima. It weighs up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and can reach 3 meters (10 feet). The fish is sold in nearby towns including Leticia, Colombia, Tabatinga, Brazil and Iquitos, Peru.
The only known suspect in the disappearances is fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, who is under arrest. According to accounts from Aboriginal people who were with Pereira and Phillips, he brandished a gun at them the day before the couple disappeared.
The suspect denies any wrongdoing and said military police tortured him in an attempt to extract a confession, his family told The Associated Press.
Pereira, who previously headed the local office of the Brazilian government’s indigenous agency, known as FUNAI, has taken part 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 natives can legally fish on their territories.
“The motive for the crime is a personal quarrel over the fisheries inspection,” speculated the mayor of Atalaia do Norte, Denis Paiva, to reporters without providing further details.
The AP had access to information shared by the police with the indigenous leaders. But while some cops, the mayor and others in the area link the couple’s disappearances to the ‘fish mafia,’ federal law enforcement hasn’t ruled out other lines of inquiry, such as narcotics trafficking. .
Fisherman Laurimar Alves Lopes, who lives on the shores of Itaquai, told AP he had given up fishing inside indigenous territory after being detained three times. He said he endured beatings and starvation in prison.
Lopes, who has five children, said he only fishes near his home to feed his family, not to sell.
“I made a lot of mistakes, I stole a lot of fish. When you see your child starving you go and get him where you need to go. So I’ll go there to steal fish so that you can provide for the needs of my family. But then I said, I’m going to put an end to this, I’m going to plant,” he said in an interview on his boat.
Lopes said he was taken to the local federal police headquarters in Tabatinga three times, accused of being beaten and left without food.
In 2019, Funai official 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 was linked to his work against fishermen and poachers.
The rubber tappers founded all the riverside communities in the region. In the 1980s, however, rubber mining declined and they resorted to logging. This also ended when the federal government created the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in 2001. Fishing has become the main economic activity since then.
An illegal fishing trip in the vast Javari Valley lasts about a month, said Manoel Felipe, a local historian and teacher who also served as a city councillor. For each illegal incursion, a fisherman can earn at least $3,000.
“Fishermen’s financiers are Colombians,” Felipe said. “In Leticia, everyone was angry with Bruno. It’s no small game. It’s possible they sent a gunman to kill him.