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Possible human remains have been found in the search for a missing British journalist and an Indigenous guide who vanished a week ago in a remote area of the Brazilian Amazon.
Dom Phillips, who has been a regular contributor to The Guardian newspaper, and former Indigenous official Bruno Pereira were last seen the morning of June 5 near the Javari Valley Indigenous territory, located in an area of the remote Brazilian Amazon bordering Peru and Colombia.
The two men were in the Sao Rafael community and returning by boat to the nearby city of Atalaia do Norte but never arrived. After what has been criticized as a slow start, the Brazilian army, the navy, civil defense, state police and Indigenous volunteers have been mobilized in the search.
Speaking at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles Friday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro vowed that his armed forces were working “tirelessly” to find them, according to Reuters.
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The Brazilian federal police revealed Saturday that “apparently human” remains had been recovered from an area of the river Friday near where the two men had vanished, and the “organic material” was being sent for forensic analysis, Reuters and The Associated Press reported.
But sources, including a federal police officer and a state detective, separately expressed doubt to Reuters that such material could be anything more than butcher’s scraps judging on where it was found.
The only known suspect in the disappearances is fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, who is under arrest on a charge of illegal possession of restricted ammunition.
The BBC reported that police said he was one of the last people seen with Phillips and Pereira, and blood traces found on his boat will be tested to see if it is a DNA match for the missing men.
According to accounts by Indigenous people who were with Pereira and Phillips, da Costa de Oliveira brandished a rifle at them the day before the pair disappeared. He denies any wrongdoing and said military police tortured him to try to get a confession, his family told the AP.
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Judge Jacinta Silva dos Santos has agreed to keep the fisherman held for another 30 days as police continue to investigate whether he was involved in the disappearances of the two men. At least six other people have been questioned.
Phillips, who lives in Salvador, Bahia, has contributed to the Washington Post and New York Times. He is writing a book about preservation of the Amazon with support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which awarded him a yearlong fellowship for environmental reporting.
Pereira, who previously led the local bureau of the government’s Indigenous agency, known as FUNAI, has taken part in several operations against illegal fishing. In such operations, fishing gear is seized or destroyed, while the fishermen are fined and briefly detained.
Only the Indigenous can legally fish in their territories.
“The crime’s motive is some personal feud over fishing inspection,” the mayor of Atalaia do Norte, Denis Paiva, speculated to reporters without providing more details.
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The AP had access to information police shared with Indigenous leadership. While some police, the mayor and others in the region link the pair’s disappearances to a “fish mafia,” federal police do not rule out other lines of investigation. The area has a heavy narcotrafficking activity.
The disappearances come three years after the still unsolved killing of Funai official Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, who was gunned down in front of his wife and daughter-in-law in Tabatinga.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.