Divers find belongings of missing British journalist tied under water

Brazil’s search for British journalist Dom Phillips and an Indigenous expert who disappeared in the Amazon a week ago has advanced with the discovery of a backpack, laptop and other personal belongings of the men submerged in a river. The items were found on Sunday afternoon, and were carried by federal police officers by boat to Atalaia do Norte, the closest city to the search. In a statement on Sunday night, police said they had identified the items as the belongings of both missing men, including a health card and clothes of Bruno Pereira, the Brazilian Indigenous expert.

The backpack, which was identified as belonging to the missing Brit, was found tied to a tree that was half-submerged, 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.

A Federal Police officer loads a truck with items found during a search for Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips in Atalaia do NorteA Federal Police officer loads a truck with items found during a search for Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips in Atalaia do Norte (Edmar Barros/AP)

The development came a day after police reported finding traces of blood in the boat of a fisherman who is under arrest as the only suspect in the disappearance. Officers also found organic matter of apparent human origin in the river.

The materials are being analysed. Search teams that found the laptop and other items on Sunday had concentrated 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 Matis Indigenous group. “We used a little canoe to go to the shallow water.

Then we found a tarp, shorts and a spoon,” one of the volunteers, Binin Beshu Matis, told The Associated Press. Mr Pereira, 41, and Mr Phillips, 57, were last seen on June 5 near the entrance of 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.

Brazil AmazonA Federal Police officer takes pictures of a seized boat during the search for British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira (Edmar Barros/AP)

That area has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents.

Violence has grown as drug trafficking gangs battle for control of waterways to ship cocaine, although the Itaquai is not a known drug trafficking route. Authorities have said a main line of the police investigation into the disappearance has pointed to an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in the Javari Valley reserve, which is Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory. One of the most valuable targets is the world’s largest freshwater fish with scales, the arapaima.

It weighs up to 440 pounds and can reach 10 feet. The fish is sold in nearby cities, 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.

Brazil AmazonThe army, the navy, civil defence, state police and Indigenous volunteers have been mobilised in the search (Edmar Barros/AP)

According to accounts by Indigenous people who were with Mr Pereira and Mr 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. Mr Pereira, who previously led the local bureau 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 the fishing gear is seized or destroyed, while the fishermen are fined and briefly detained.

Only the Indigenous can legally fish in their territories.

A firefighter holds a cell phone with a picture showing the moment when a backpack was found during a search for Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips in Atalaia do Norte A firefighter holds a phone with a picture showing the moment when a backpack was found during a search for Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips in Atalaia do Norte (Edmar Barros/AP)

“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. AP had access to information police shared with Indigenous leadership. But while some police, the mayor and others in the region link the pair’s disappearances to the “fish mafia”, federal police have not ruled rule out other lines of investigation, such as narco trafficking.

In 2019, Funai official Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was gunned down in Tabatinga in front of his wife and daughter-in-law.

Three years later, the crime remains unsolved.

His Funai colleagues told AP they believe the slaying was linked to his work against fishermen and poachers.