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Family says bodies found in search for journalist and colleague

Police officers and rescue team members search on June 12 for British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who went missing on June 5 while reporting in the remote Javari Valley of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. (Bruno Kelly/Reuters)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — The family of a missing journalist says they have been told by Brazilian authorities that two bodies have been found tied to a tree in the Amazon rainforest. The report came more than a week after the journalist and a Brazilian government official went missing.

Police said they have collected “biological materials” during the search, but have not confirmed they are the remains of British journalist Dom Phillips, a Brazil-based contributor to the Guardian and onetime contract writer for The Washington Post, or Bruno Pereira, a longtime official at Brazil’s Indigenous rights organization. Police said reports that the bodies of Phillips and Pereira had been found were inaccurate.

Read the work of missing British journalist Dom Phillips

Search parties on Sunday recovered items that belonged to the two men, including Pereira’s health insurance card, their boots and Phillips’s backpack, which was filled with clothing. Local media reported that the items were submerged in water and tied to the roots of a tree.

“The biological material is being analyzed, along with the personal belongings of the disappeared men,” the federal police said in a statement Monday. “As soon as a finding occurs, the family and media will be immediately informed.”

Paul Sherwood, Phillips’s brother-in-law, told The Post that he visited the Brazilian Embassy in London last week to discuss the disappearances. He said an official he met there, Roberto Doring, contacted him Monday morning and asked to speak. Doring told him two bodies had been found tied to a tree in the forest.

“He told me it was likely to be Dom and Bruno,” Sherwood said. “But he wasn’t telling me that as an official statement, and would come back later with the results. No one has rung me since.”

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The Brazilian Embassy in London said it has been in contact with Phillips’s family. It declined to comment on “the substance of this contact.”

The local Indigenous rights group, Univaja, which has also been searching for Phillips and Pereira, said it couldn’t confirm reports that bodies have been discovered. “Fake news,” Indigenous leader Beto Marubo said.

Alessandra Sampaio, Phillips’s wife, told the Brazilian news outlet G1 on Monday morning that the bodies of her husband and Pereira had been found. But she told The Post later Monday that she had been confused. Bodies had been found, she said she was told by Phillips’s family, but weren’t identified.

“I presumed it was them,” she said. “I just wanted this story to be over.”

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Phillips, who was working on a book on conservation in the Amazon, accompanied Pereira this month into the Javari Valley, one of the most remote reaches of the rainforest. The vast territory, considered the world’s largest dwelling area of uncontacted Indigenous peoples, has been under increasing pressure from criminal invaders intent on stripping it of its resources.

Phillips and Pereira were visiting Indigenous surveillance teams trying to repel and report on the criminal land invaders. Members of the Indigenous surveillance team said they were threatened during the trip. There were reports that one fisherman had brandished a gun.

The men were supposed to come out of the territory and arrive at the nearby city of Atalaia do Norte at 8 a.m. on June 5. They never appeared.

Police have arrested one man, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, known as “Pelado,” a local fisherman who has been accused of threatening Pereira. Traces of blood were found on his boat. Investigators are analyzing it to see if the blood could be related to either Phillips or Pereira.

We traveled deep into the Amazon to investigate deforestation. A grisly discovery awaited us.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who last week appeared to cast blame on the missing men for venturing into the area, said Monday that it looked as if they were victims of foul play.

“All indications point to the belief that they did something bad to the men,” he said. “With the time frame we have, eight days becoming nine, and what has happened, it will be very unlikely to find them living.”

The disappearances have brought new attention to the continuing illegality and violence in a vast region beset by environmental threats. Under Bolsonaro, who has long chafed against environmental restrictions he considers impediments to economic development, deforestation of the forest has risen to a 15-year high. Indigenous lands, which historically have been some of the best-preserved patches of the forest, are increasingly under threat.

Some Indigenous peoples, feeling abandoned by the government, are now taking measures to protect themselves against the encroachment.

One place where this conflict has escalated is the Javari Valley, a territory larger than South Carolina. The region is virtually unprotected, and illegal gold miners and fishermen, and even U.S. missionaries, have exploited the absence of the state to penetrate the territory.

Pereira, a longtime official with Funai, the government’s Indigenous rights agency, was mapping criminal activity in the valley. The work had earned him enemies.

In April, a note arrived at the door of Univaja’s attorney, Eliesio da Silva Vargas Marubo. It was a threat against the lawyer. But the letter also cited Pereira.

“We’re tired of this persecution by you all — Indians against working families,” the letter said, according to a court filing by Univaja. “I’m going to tell you this once that if you continue on in this way, it is going to be worse for you.”

“You’ve been warned.”

Pereira, who lived in the northeastern city of Recife, returned to the valley this month. This time, Phillips was with him. When the men disappeared, the Indigenous surveillance team they were working with said, Pereira was carrying fresh evidence of wrongdoing to deliver to the authorities. Phillips was with him, to document.

“Dom was a courageous guy,” Sherwood said. “He was doing something that he thought was really important. He must have known he was taking risks, and we hope not only that justice be delivered, but the book he was writing get published and the story get told.”

Karla Adams in London contributed to this report.