Brazilian Indigenous group Univaja demands probe into murders of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira

Dom Phillips, a British journalist, and Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian expert on indigenous people, were killed while doing investigative work in a remote corner of the Amazon in early June | Art: Cris Vector/Used with permission

Ten days after British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were reported missing on June 5 while doing investigative and reporting work in the Javari Valley, a remote corner of the Brazilian Amazon, the Brazilian Federal Police confirmed that a man arrested during the investigation confessed to the murders of both men and indicated the place where the bodies were found.

Amarildo Oliveira da Costa, known as “Pelado” (a nickname that directly translates to naked in Portuguese), a fisherman who lives in the region, was arrested with his brother, Oseney da Costa Oliveira, known as Dos Santos, in relation to the case. Pelado told the police he helped to bury the bodies of both men, but another person was responsible for killing them.

According to the investigation conducted by the Civil Police in the Amazonas state, the motivation for the killings is likely due to the fact that Pereira was “getting in the way” of Pelado's business, with reports of illegal fishing within the Indigenous territory, as reported by Agência Pública.

While the Federal Police dismissed suggestions that the killings were carried out upon orders from organized crime, the Indigenous People Union of the Javari Valley, Univaja, the main Indigenous entity in the region, insists that a probe must continue to answer all the questions raised in the case.

The Indigenous group published a statement claiming the investigation is not taking into consideration the reports they sent to authorities in late 2021.

The cruelty employed in the practice of the crime shows that both Pereira and Phillips were in the tracks of a powerful criminal organization that tried to hide their trails at every cost during the investigation (…) We demand the continuation and deepening of the investigations.

According to Univaja, the material submitted shows the existence of “an organized criminal group acting in constant invasions to the Indigenous Land of Javari Valley,” with professional hunters and fishermen linked to narcos. At least two of the three locals arrested for the killings of Phillips and Pereira were listed as associates of this criminal group in the previous Univaja report sent to authorities.

The reports included the names of invaders who are the members of the criminal group, how they operate, and what kind of transportation they use.

As of June 19, three people had been arrested for involvement in the murders and the Federal Police said it had five other suspects under investigation, reported the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.

In a previous statement, Univaja also stated that the “case is not over yet” and qualified the murders as a political crime.

Brazilian journalist André Trigueiro questioned:

They trusted the Indigenous people to guide the searches for Dom and Bruno, but undermine the complaints made by the same Indigenous people when suddenly closing the investigations on eventual intellectual authors or criminal organizations involvement. How is that, Federal Police?

Phillips and Pereira bonded over their shared love for the rainforest and had traveled together through the region before, as reported by The Guardian, where Phillips was a frequent contributor. This time, he was there to research for a book he was writing, with Pereira once again as his guide.

After conducting interviews in Atalaia do Norte in Amazonas state on June 5, they took a two-hour boat trip along the Itaquaí river which turned into a mystery. On June 15, their deaths were confirmed by Brazilian authorities.

Indigenous force 

The Javari Valley has the highest number of isolated Indigenous peoples recorded in the world, and a demarcated territory of 85,445 square kilometers (larger than Austria), one of the largest Indigenous territories in Brazil. It's located in the westernmost part of the country, near the border with Peru and Colombia.

Targeted with invasions and environmental crimes, Indigenous peoples living there formed the Univaja to protect these territories and the rainforest and to denounce invaders to the authorities. Their aim is to protect over 8.5 million hectares of forest — more or less the size of 8.5 million football fields.

They were the first ones looking for Phillips and Pereira but they were not acknowledged during the press conference held to confirm the discovery of the bodies until a reporter asked about it.

In their statements, the Indigenous people organization says only the Amazonas military state police treated them as partners during the operation and that they were the only ones working with them since the beginning — the Public Defenders Office had to enter a legal action requesting reinforcement of searches in the first days.

The searches were led by Univaja's Surveillance Team, EVU. The group believes its critical reports could be the reason why Pereira was targeted and threatened with death threats. If the investigations do not continue, Univaja worries about the safety of those who will stay in the region.

Political issue

The 41-year-old Pereira was part of Funai, the Brazilian National Indigenous Foundation. He had a deep knowledge of the region and the people living there and was regarded as the greatest expert of his generation on isolated groups. He spoke four Indigenous languages. A viral video where he sings a Kanamari's people song shows how close he was to those communities.

Remember them singing, fighting and keeping the forest alive and standing, side by side with the indigenous people and traditional people. #JusticeForDomAndBruno

Pereira was removed from a coordination position in the Javari Valley in 2019, the first year of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency. At that time, he had just helped to organize an operation against illegal mining activity in the region. In January 2020, he asked to be licensed from Funai and started to work as a consultant alongside Indigenous peoples, as reported by UOL.

This is my forest brother. Sniffing snuff in my family, after intense work for protecting this territory that is the second largest one in the country and has the largest number of isolated Indigenous people in the world. My friend is now eternal.

The 57-year-old Phillips also appeared in a video, which went viral during Bolsonaro's first year as president. The British journalist asked how Bolsonaro planned to convince the world he had serious concerns about the growing deforestation rates in the Amazon, while governmental actions showed otherwise. Bolsonaro replied: “First of all, you people have to understand that the Amazon belongs to Brazil. It's not yours.”

While the world asked, “Where are Dom and Bruno?”, Bolsonaro tried to pin responsibility on the victims, saying both men went on “a little adventure” in a place not recommended to do such.

Reporting is not an adventure. It is a public service that is only dangerous in places where the government is omissive in fighting crime or, worse, encourages such crimes.

During the same day the Federal Police denied the information passed by a staffer of the Brazilian Embassy in London to Phillips’ family about bodies being found, Bolsonaro revealed in a radio station that there were “indications that something wicked” was done to them and it would be difficult to find them alive.

In another interview, he said Phillips was not well seen in the region because of his reporting and that he should have been more cautious.

Many of Bolsonaro's supporters started to bring up the murder of Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun killed in 2005 for defending the landless in northern Brazil, claiming Lula da Silva's government wasn't blamed for it then.

Daniel Camargos, a Brazilian journalist who worked with Phillips, stressed in an article in Repórter Brasil, while searches were still on:

O fato é que a região do Vale do Javari é uma área conflagrada pela violência. Episódios de ataques a tiros aos postos de vigilância da Funai se repetem desde que Bolsonaro chegou ao poder. O discurso anti-indígena, antiambiental, anti-imprensa e anti-ONG do presidente serve como combustível para inflamar contraventores, que se sentem avalizados pela principal autoridade do Brasil.

The fact is that Javari Valley’s region is an area fraught with violence. Episodes of shooting attacks to Funai’s surveillance posts have been repeated since Bolsonaro came to power. The president’s anti-Indigenous, anti-environmental, anti-press and NGOs speech serves as fuel to inflame offenders, who feel guaranteed by Brazil’s main authority.

Another journalist, Jamil Chade, reports that the murders could “bury” Bolsonaro's attempts to reverse a global negative image and worsen the Brazilian diplomacy crisis. The UN, added Chade, has already asked for an impartial investigation into the case, and Indigenous peoples stepped up the pressure against the government with the organization.

Meanwhile, an association of Funai's workers known as INA and the Brazilian nonprofit Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (Inesc) have launched a report analyzing policies applied during the current government called, “Anti-Indigenous foundation: a portrait of Funai under Bolsonaro's government.”

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