Backpack, laptop found where couple went missing in Amazon

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ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — Divers from the Brazilian fire service found a backpack and laptop on Sunday in the remote Amazon region where indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips went missing a week ago, firefighters said.

The backpack was tied to a tree that was half submerged, a firefighter told reporters in Atalaia do Norte, the closest town to the search area, near the indigenous area of ​​the Javari Valley. It is high water season in the region and part of the forest is under water.

Federal police officers took the items by boat to Atalaia do Norte later in the afternoon.

The local indigenous association, with which Pereira was working at the time of his disappearance, confirmed that divers from the fire service had found a backpack, but could not immediately say who it belonged to. The area has only poor riverside communities where equipment such as laptops is rare.

Orlando Possuelo, a member of the indigenous association known as UNIVAJA, told reporters that indigenous volunteers also found a tarp in the boat used by the missing men and a Pereira T-shirt near the backpack site. .

“Now the hope is to try and find at least some of the bodies,” he said.

Earlier, police found traces of blood in the boat of a fisherman who has been arrested as the only suspect and organic material of apparently human origin in the river. Officials said Saturday that both materials were analyzed and no further details were provided.

Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were last seen on June 5 at the entrance to the indigenous area, which borders Peru and Colombia. They returned only by boat on the Itaquai River to Atalaia do Norte, but never arrived.

There have been violent clashes between fishermen, poachers and government officials in that area. Violence has increased as drug gangs compete for control of the waterways to transport cocaine, although the Itaquai is not a known drug route.

Authorities have said a mainline police investigation into the disappearance has led to an international network paying poor fishermen to fish illegally in the reserve of the Javari Valley, Brazil’s second largest indigenous area.

One of its most valuable targets is the world’s largest freshwater fish with scales, the arapaima. It weighs up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and can reach 3 meters (10 feet). The fish is sold in nearby towns 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 has been arrested. According to stories of natives who were with Pereira and 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.

Pereira, who previously headed the local office of the government’s indigenous agency known as FUNAI, has participated 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 detained briefly. Only the indigenous people are allowed to fish legally on their territory.

“The motive of the crime is a personal feud over the fisheries inspectorate,” Atalaia do Norte mayor Denis Paiva speculated to reporters without giving more details.

AP had access to information the police shared with the indigenous leaders. But while some police, the mayor and others in the region have linked the couple’s disappearances to the “fish mafia,” federal police are not ruling out other lines of investigation, such as drug trafficking.

Fisherman Laurimar Alves Lopes, who lives on the shores of Itaquai, told the AP he stopped fishing in the native area after being detained three times. He said he was beaten in prison and starved.

Lopes, who has five children, said he only fishes near his home to feed his family, not to sell.

“I made a lot of mistakes, I stole a lot of fish. When you see your child starving to death, you go get it where you want. So I would go there to steal fish to support my family. But then I said: I’m going to put an end to this, I’m going to plant,” he said during an interview on his boat.

Lopes said he was taken three times to the local federal police headquarters in Tabatinga, on the charges that he had been beaten and left without food.

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 has still not been solved. His FUNAI colleagues told AP they believe the murder is related to his work against fishermen and poachers.

Rubber tappers founded all the riverbank communities in the area. However, in the 1980s, tapping rubber declined and they resorted to logging. That also ended when the federal government created the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in 2001. Since then, fishing has become the main economic activity.

An illegal fishing trip to the vast Javari valley takes about a month, said Manoel Felipe, a local historian and teacher who also served as a councillor. For each illegal raid, a fisherman can earn at least $3,000.

“The financiers of the fishermen are Colombians,” Felipe said. “In Leticia everyone was mad at Bruno. This is no small game. They may have sent a gunman to kill him.”

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