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Signs of something ‘buried’ in the disappearance of a journalist and Amazon expert

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Atalaia do Norte (Brazil) (AFP) – Authorities searching a remote corner of the Amazon for a missing British journalist and an indigenous Brazilian expert are investigating possible human remains and a spot where something appears to have been buried, officials said Friday.

Fears are growing over the fate of Dom Phillips, 57, a veteran contributor to The Guardian newspaper, and Bruno Pereira, 41, a respected indigenous peoples scholar, since they disappeared on Sunday after receiving threats during a research trip to Brazil’s Javari Valley, a remote jungle region that has seen an upsurge in illegal fishing, logging, mining and drug trafficking.

Authorities arrested a suspect named Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, 41, nicknamed “Pelado”, who witnesses said chased the men upriver. A bloodstain found on a tarp in his boat was sent for analysis to the crime lab in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.

Emergency manager Geonivan Maciel said investigators now have a new lead in the case: a suspicious site with “spilled earth” in a community called Cachoeira, on a bank of the Itaquai River, where the men were last seen.

Protesters from the National Indigenous Foundation point to the disappearance of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous affairs specialist Bruno Pereira, in Brasilia on June 9, 2022 EVARISTO SA AFP

“It’s like somebody dug something up on the site, buried something there,” Maciel told reporters accompanying the search.

“We’ll do a bottom scan to verify… We can’t say there’s definitive evidence, but we’ll see if there’s anything out there that could identify anything about the two men. disappeared.”

Federal police later said in a statement that investigators found “apparent human-like organic material” during their search.

It was not clear if it came from the same site.

Investigators collected genetic material from Phillips and Pereira for comparison, the statement said.

Bolsonaro under fire

President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has been accused of not stepping up the search operation quickly enough.

And Bolsonaro himself came under fire when he appeared to blame the men, saying they had embarked on an “unadvisable adventure”.

A police boat patrols Atalaia do Norte in search of missing indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Phillips on June 10, 2022
A police boat patrols Atalaia do Norte in search of missing indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and journalist Dom Phillips on June 10, 2022 JOÃO LAET AFP

The government is facing increasing pressure over the case from prominent media organizations, rights groups and celebrities, including football legend Pele and iconic singer Caetano Veloso.

The environmental group Greenpeace fired a new salvo on Friday, calling the disappearance of the men “the tip of the iceberg of the policy of extermination pushed by the current administration”.

Bolsonaro, who has pushed to open protected indigenous lands to mining, has presided over a wave of destruction in the Amazon, a key resource in the race to tackle climate change.

Since the far-right president took office in 2019, average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased by 75% compared to the previous decade.

“The extreme violence and insecurity in the Javari Valley are a reflection of the Brazilian government’s lack of competent and effective action across the Amazon,” Greenpeace said in a statement.

Drugs, ammunition

Police have said they hope to find the couple alive, but are not ruling out any possibilities, including homicide.

Witnesses say they saw ‘Pelado’ follow Phillips and Pereira’s boat as the pair returned to the small town of Atalaia do Norte after a search trip to an area known as Lake Jaburu.

Veteran foreign correspondent Dom Phillips speaks to two men in Roraima state, Brazil, in November 2019
Veteran foreign correspondent Dom Phillips speaks to two men in Roraima state, Brazil, in November 2019 Joao LAET AFP/File

The suspect was arrested with drugs and unlicensed ammunition of a caliber often used in assault rifles.

Local indigenous activists say Phillips and Pereira received threats last week while working in the area.

Pereira, a highly regarded expert on the region currently on leave from Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency FUNAI, has faced death threats for his work fighting illegal invasions of indigenous lands.

Phillips accompanied him for a book project on sustainable development in the Amazon.