Human remains have been found in the search for a British journalist and Brazilian indigenous expert who disappeared deep in the Amazon after receiving threats, Brazil’s president confirmed Monday.
Relatives of veteran correspondent Dom Phillips and respected indigenous specialist Bruno Pereira meanwhile said authorities informed them two bodies had been found – though police and local indigenous leaders denied that, adding to confusion around the case.
The families of Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41, have endured an anguished wait for news since the pair disappeared a week ago Sunday during a reporting trip to Brazil’s Javari Valley, a remote jungle region rife with illegal fishing, logging, mining and drug trafficking.
“The evidence leads us to believe something bad was done to them, because human innards were found floating in the river, which are now undergoing DNA testing,” President Jair Bolsonaro said.
The development came a day after police said they had found personal items belonging to the two, including Pereira’s health card, pants and boots, as well as Phillips’s backpack and clothing.
Bolsonaro, whose government has faced accusations of failing to act urgently enough in the case, said hope was fading.
“Because of the time that’s passed – eight days now, approaching the ninth – it’s going to be very difficult to find them alive,” the president told CBN Recife radio.
“I pray to God for that to happen, but the information and evidence we’re getting suggest the opposite.”
‘Upset and distressed’
Phillips’s niece Dominique Davies told AFP via text message that authorities had informed the family two bodies had been found.
“We are waiting on confirmation from the federal police (in Brazil) as to whether they are Dom and Bruno. We all remain upset and distressed at this time,” she said.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper, where Phillips was a regular contributor, said the bodies were found tied to a tree, according to information given to Phillips’s family by an aide to Brazil’s ambassador in London.
Federal police said in a statement that reports that Phillips and Pereira’s bodies had been found were incorrect. And the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, which is taking part in the search, denied two bodies had been found.
The police have confirmed they are analysing a blood sample and suspected human remains found during the search to determine whether they are from the missing men.
They said the results of these analyses are expected “during this week.”
Pereira’s wife Beatriz Matos said Monday on Twitter that the police had confirmed “that no body was found.”
Brazilian police have arrested a suspect in the case, 41-year-old Amarildo Costa de Oliveira, nicknamed “Pelado.”
Witnesses say they saw him threaten Phillips and Pereira prior to their disappearance, then pursue them in his boat just before they disappeared.
The blood sample being analysed was found on a tarp in Oliveira’s boat.
The search has been complicated given the difficult jungle terrain in the far-flung Javari Valley, where the men had travelled by boat gathering material for a book Phillips was writing about sustainable ways to protect the world’s biggest rainforest.
U2 adds to pressure
Brazil’s government faces pressure from international media organisations, rights groups and high-profile figures over the case – fuelling criticism of Bolsonaro’s policies on the Amazon, where illegal deforestation and other environmental crimes have surged since he took office in 2019.
Dozens of indigenous protesters marched Monday in Atalaia do Norte, the small city Phillips and Pereira had been headed to, demanding answers on their whereabouts.
“It’s been a week… and every day brings conflicting reports,” Natalie Southwick, Latin America coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a statement.
“CPJ remains deeply concerned about the government’s insufficient response and lack of transparency. Brazilian authorities must stop dragging their feet.”
Irish rock band U2 became the latest to rally to the cause, joining Brazilian football legend Pele and iconic singer Caetano Veloso.
“We are waiting to find out what has happened to these courageous men,” the band tweeted, along with a red-and-black drawing of the pair by artist Cristiano Siqueira that has gone viral.
“Where are Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira?” it reads.