Authorities say the fisherman confessed to ambushing Phillips, a Brazilian Guardian contributor and former Washington Post contract editor, and Pereira, a longtime civil servant with Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, this month in an uninhabited stretch of a river leading to the town of Atalaia do Norte.
“He confessed to the practice of this crime and gave us the details of where the bodies were buried,” said Eduardo Alexandre Fontes, federal police chief for the state of Amazonas. “After proving that these remains are linked to Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, our plan is to return them to the family as soon as possible.”
The human remains, he said, were sent for analysis.
The man who police say confessed to the crime, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, allegedly made threats against Pereira.
Oliveira, 41, known as “Pelado”, was arrested last week. Pereira had been investigate the criminal activities of outsiders in the Javari Valley Indigenous Reserve.
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“Our first mission was to find them alive, but unfortunately we are bringing this sad news to family, friends and the international press,” said Detective Guilherme Torres.
The announcement was mourned by the indigenous peoples Pereira collaborated with and whose struggle against illegal invasions Phillips documented.
“An incalculable loss,” Univaja, the local indigenous association, said in a statement.
The case has been closely followed in Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest and whether it should be developed or preserved has become one of the country’s most contentious issues. President Jair Bolsonaro, a staunch development advocate who has stood up for illegal miners and loggers, blamed Phillips for his demise. In a statement on Wednesday, he said the journalist was “loathed in the region.”
“He made a big fuss against gold mining and on environmental issues,” Bolsonaro said. “In this region, an extremely isolated region, few people liked him. He should have redoubled his attention to take care of him. But he decided to make this excursion.
Pereira and Phillips were last seen alive in the early morning of June 5, when they left a meeting with residents of a riverside community. Initial hopes that the men were lost or suffered a mechanical problem quickly gave way to suspicions of foul play.
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Pereira, who was mapping criminal activity in the valley and working with an indigenous surveillance team to monitor and fend off illegal invaders who wanted to rob her of her resources, had been threatened for the job. Threat sent to Indigenous organization he has partnered with quoted him by name and warned ‘it’s going to be worse for you’ if they don’t stop trying to fend off incursions illegal.
Phillips, who was writing a book on conservation in the Amazon, recently got in touch with Pereira to discuss an expedition to the valley, a territory larger than South Carolina which is considered the largest uncontacted directory in the world. Phillips told his wife, Alessandra Sampaio, that he expected to be off the reserve within days, according to a statement she gave to investigators.
Sampaio said Phillips did not tell him he was threatened either before or during the expedition. She said he was speaking “in a generic way” that Pereira had been threatened and the region was in conflict.
Phillips and Pereira were armed, Eliesio Marubo, a Univaja’s lawyer, told investigators. Marubo said he received a message from Pereira as the trip was about to begin. Pereira was worried about a meeting they were to have on June 5 with local fishermen, who have been accused of illegally fishing rivers inside indigenous territory. He said that “could end up being a problem”.
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The men encountered an Aboriginal monitoring team, who reported having contact with fishermen. One of the fishermen allegedly pointed a shotgun at the surveillance team, a witness said in an investigative report that federal police sent to Brazil’s Supreme Court this week.
Police accused Pelado of having previously fired on a local base in Funai, the Indigenous Affairs Agency for which Pereira had worked.
Police arrested Costa de Oliveira shortly after the men disappeared. They said they found blood on his boat and recovered ammunition from his house.
Gabriela Sá Pessoa in São Paulo contributed to this report.
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