Police investigate Amazon disappearance by analyzing human matter

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Police investigating the disappearance of a British journalist and an indigenous leader in the Amazon said they were analyzing human material found in the Itaquai River near the port of Atalaia do Norte.

It comes as family members of the only person arrested for his disappearance said he was innocent and alleged authorities were trying to coerce a confession.

Freelance journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were last seen Sunday morning in the Javari Valley, Brazil’s second-largest indigenous territory, located in a remote area on the Peru-Colombia border. Both men belonged to the community of Sao Rafael.

They were returning by boat to the nearby town of Atalaia do Norte but never arrived.

Images of British journalist Dom Phillips, left, and indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira (Eraldo Peres/AP)

The family claims of fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, also known as Pelado, were the latest development in a disappearance that has drawn international attention, a search involving multiple agencies and criticism from Brazilian authorities for a allegedly slow response.

The family’s claims, made to The Associated Press, also come a day after witnesses told the AP things about de Oliveira that the family denies.

De Oliveira was arrested Tuesday at his home in the riverside community of Sao Gabriel, near where the couple went missing on Sunday.

He was initially arrested for illegal possession of firearms, but police have since said he is now considered a suspect in the disappearance and is being held at a police station in Atalaia do Norte.

Osenei da Costa de Oliveira, 41, also a fisherman, said on Friday he visited his brother in prison.

“He told me he was at home when they handcuffed him,” Osenei da Costa de Oliveira said, speaking outside the police station where his brother is being held.

“Then they put him on a boat under the sun and started to go to Atalaia do Norte. When they reached the Curupira stream, they put him on another boat. Then they beat him, tortured him , submerged in water, stepped on his leg and pepper sprayed his face, they also drugged him twice, but I don’t know what they used.

“They wanted him to confess but he is innocent,” added Osenei da Costa de Oliveira.

The Amazonas State Public Security Secretariat, which oversees local police, said in a statement it would not comment on the family’s accusations as the investigation into the disappearance was now being led by federal police. .

Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira’s mother, Maria de Fatima da Costa, said she was at the port of Atalaia do Norte when her son arrived with police. He was taken from the boat with a balaclava, could barely walk on his own and was soaked, she said.

“I told the police he was not a criminal to be treated like this,” she told the AP.

She also said the blood that police say was found in her son’s boat was likely from a pig he killed days before he was arrested. Authorities said the blood was being analyzed in a lab.

Members of an indigenous group of guardians, who were with Mr. Pereira and Mr. Phillips on Saturday, the day before they disappeared, told the AP on Thursday that de Oliveira and two other men had brandished weapons at them.

Brazil Amazonia
Federal police arrive in Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas state (Edmar Barros/AP)

Paulo Marubo, president of an association of indigenous peoples in the Javari Valley, Univaja, also told the AP that Mr Phillips photographed the men at the time.

The suspect’s family also disputed the allegation of wielding weapons. Father-in-law Francisco Conceicao de Freitas said he and de Oliveira were together on a fishing boat and his son-in-law waved an oar, not a gun, at the group which included Mr Phillips and Mr Pereira.

The family said they had not fished illegally inside the nearby indigenous territory of the Javari Valley, which has become a popular place in the region for illegal fishing and hunting.

The family also said de Oliveira had no criminal record and his only contact with law enforcement was being detained for a few hours under the unfounded suspicion that he was carrying drugs.

Mr. Phillips and Mr. Pereira had spoken with people on the outskirts of the protected area, but never entered it, according to several people the AP interviewed in the area.

Amazonas state police have long been accused of extrajudicial executions and unlawful raids. Since Governor Wilson Lima took office in 2019, three massacres involving local officers have taken place. One of them, in October 2020, resulted in 17 deaths in the capital Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon. Police have denied wrongdoing in all three cases.

Mr Phillips, 57, has reported from Brazil for more than a decade and recently worked on a book on Amazon conservation.

Mr. Pereira has long operated in the Javari Valley for Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency. He oversaw their regional office and coordination of uncontacted indigenous groups before going on leave to help local indigenous people defend themselves against illegal fishers and poachers.

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