Search for British journalist missing in Amazon finds 'human matter'

‘Human matter’ is found in hunt for missing British journalist in the Amazon after he vanished while investigating remote tribes and illegal logging

  • Authorities are searching for Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira
  • The pair have  disappeared in a remote part of the Amazon on Sunday, June 5
  • Police say they have found ‘human matter’ in the river and blood in a fishing boat 
  • A local fisherman Amariledo ‘Pelado’ da Costa has been detained in connection
  • His family claim he was waterboarded by police to try to extract a confession

Police searching for a British journalist missing in the Amazon have found ‘human matter’ in the river, as the family of a suspect say he was waterboarded in a bid to get him to confess to involvement in his disappearance. 

Journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira have not been seen or heard from since Sunday June 5 while they were travelling in an isolated area of Brazil.

A frantic search operation has been underway for several days as multiple agencies try to find the freelance journalist and his companion after they didn’t return to the city of Atalaia do Norte.

Police say they have found ‘human matter’ in the river during their search, and this is being sent to the Amazonian city of Manaus to be tested. Police say blood found in a boat earlier in the week is also being analysed at a lab.

A fisherman, identified as Amariledo ‘Pelado’ da Costa, was arrested by police on Tuesday and charged with illegal possession of drugs and restricted ammunition, before a judge ordered him to be detained for 30 days so he could be questioned in connection with the disappearances.

Yesterday his family claimed da Costa had been waterboarded by police in a bid to extract a confession. 

Amariledo ‘Pelado’ da Costa was taken into custody by authorities in Amazonas, Brazil. His family claim he has been waterboarded by police in an effort to extract a confession

Police officers and a rescue team search a section of the Amazon as they look for journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira. Police say they have found ‘human matter’ in the river

Dom Phillips, a freelance journalist who has written for publications such as the Guardian, was last seen on Sunday, June 5

Federal police and forensics experts carry out examinations on a boat as they search for the pair. Police have said they have found blood on a boat which is being tested in a lab

Bruno Pereira, an indigenous expert seen here at a protest in Brasilia in 2019, was with Mr Phillips when he went missing

His brother Osenei da Costa de Oliveira, 41, also a fisherman, said on Friday he had visited him in jail.

‘He told me he was at his house when they handcuffed him,’ he said.

‘Then they put him on a boat under the sun and began to travel to Atalaia do Norte. When they reached the Curupira rivulet, they put him on another boat. Then they beat him, tortured him, waterboarded him, 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’s innocent,’ Osenei da Costa de Oliveira added.

The public security secretariat of Amazonas state, which oversees local police, said in a statement it will not comment on the family’s accusations because the investigation into the disappearance was now being handled by the Federal Police.

The suspect’s mother, Maria de Fatima da Costa, said she was at the Atalaia do Norte port when her son arrived with police. He was taken from the boat wearing a hood, could barely walk on his own and was soaking wet, she said.

‘I told the police he was not a criminal to be treated like that,’ she told the Associated Press.

Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira has not been seen since Sunday

British journalist Dom Phillips has written for the Guardian and the Washington Post,His companion

She also said that blood that police have said was found in her son’s boat was likely from a pig he had killed a few days before being arrested.

His father-in-law added that claims her son had waved a gun at a group of people which contained Mr Phillips and Mr Pereira were wrong, and that he had raised an oar towards them, not a rifle. 

Police have indicated that da Costa was one of the last people to see journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira on Sunday around 6am, when they went missing after visiting the fisherman’s riverside community of São Gabriel.

Eliesio Morubo, the lawyer for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA), said the judge agreed to keep the fisherman jailed for 30 days because the case involved a possible ‘heinous crime’ such as murder and hiding bodies.

A witness told authorities that he saw da Costa loading a shotgun moments after Phillis and Pereira had left São Gabriel, according to Brazilian news outlet Globo.

The witness described da Costa as a ‘very dangerous man’ who was seeking retribution against Pereira.

A second witness told the police he had seen da Costa with another man in the boat and later saw da Costa by himself.

A forensics worker analyzes the boat that was seized from a fisherman identified as Amariledo ‘Pelado’ da Costa, who was taken into custody Tuesday and was charged with illegal possession of drugs and restricted ammunition. He is currently in custody as police investigate where he is tied to the disappearance of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenist Bruno Pereira

State police detectives involved in the investigation have told Reuters they are focusing on poachers and illegal fisherman in the area, who clashed often with Pereira as he organized indigenous patrols of the local reservation.

Costa’s lawyers and family have said he fished legally on the river and denied he had any role in the men’s disappearance.

Witnesses said they last saw Phillips, a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian and the Washington Post, on Sunday. His companion Pereira, an expert on local tribes, had been a senior official with government indigenous agency Funai.

The two men were on a reporting trip in the remote jungle area on the border between Peru and Colombia that is home to the world’s largest number of uncontacted indigenous people. The wild and lawless region has lured cocaine-smuggling gangs, along with illegal loggers, miners and hunters.

The pair’s disappearance has echoed globally, with Brazilian icons from soccer great Pele to singer Caetano Veloso joining politicians, environmentalists and human rights activists in urging President Jair Bolsonaro to step up the search for them.

British freelance journalist Dom Phillips visits Roraima State, Brazil, on November 16, 2019

Phillips talks to two indigenous men while visiting a community in Roraima, Brazil, on November 16, 2019

Amazon Military Command rescue team tasked with the mission of finding British missing journalist Dom Philipps and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira patrol the Javari River on Tuesday

After criticism that the government had dragged its feet in the crucial first days of the case, Bolsonaro told the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on Friday that the Brazilian armed forces were working ‘tirelessly’ to find the two men.

The streets of Atalaia do Norte, the largest riverside town near where the men were last seen, have grown busy in recent days with soldiers in camouflaged trucks, along with the distant sound of helicopters absent earlier this week.

By Friday, some 150 soldiers had been deployed via riverboats to hunt for the missing men and interview locals.

Indigenous search teams have been looking for the pair since Sunday, Marubo said.

A Reuters witness saw a boat with police and firefighters conducting dives in a murky vegetated area along the edge of the Itacoaí River and preparing a canoe to search the shallows.

Police have questioned several fishermen as witnesses, but so far have only arrested Costa on the weapons charges.

Investigators are analyzing Costa’s boat for traces of genetic material and fingerprints, police said on Thursday.

Atalaia do Norte Civil Police chief Alex Perez Timóteo told news outlet G1 that forensic workers in Manaus are trying to determine if the blood that was found in da Costa’s raft ‘is human or animal blood.’

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