Bodies retrieved in Amazon search for British journalist, Indigenous worker

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Bodies retrieved in Amazon search for British journalist, Indigenous worker

By André Spigariol, Jack Nicas and Ana Ionova

Tabatinga, Brazil: A fisherman confessed to killing a British journalist and a Brazilian expert on Indigenous peoples deep in the Amazon and then showed authorities where he had hid their bodies, Brazilian federal police said on Thursday (AEST).

It was a grim breakthrough in the 10-day search for the missing men that has transfixed Brazil and provoked international outrage.

Police said they found human remains buried about three kilometres into the rainforest and were working to identify them. They expect them to be the bodies of Dom Phillips, a freelance reporter for The Guardian, and Bruno Araújo Pereira, a former government official who worked in the area to combat illegal fishing and mining.

Indigenous leader Kamuu Wapichana speaks in front of a banner showing freelance British journalist Dom Phillips, left, and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, on Tuesday.

Indigenous leader Kamuu Wapichana speaks in front of a banner showing freelance British journalist Dom Phillips, left, and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, on Tuesday.Credit:AP

Brazilian federal police had arrested two brothers, Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, in connection to the men’s disappearance.

Earlier on Thursday, they said that Amarildo had confessed and that they were seeking an additional suspect. They had not yet charged the men.

The disappearances are a particularly dark chapter in the recent bloody history of the Amazon. Phillips had dedicated much of his career to telling the stories of the conflict that has ravaged the rainforest, while Pereira spent years trying to protect the Indigenous tribes and the environment amid that strife.

It now appears that work turned deadly for them, signalling the lengths that people will go to exploit the rainforest illegally.

“This tragic outcome puts an end to the anguish of not knowing Dom and Bruno’s whereabouts,” Alessandra Sampaio, Phillips’ wife, said in a statement. “Today, we also begin our quest for justice.”


Phillips had gone to the Javari Valley Indigenous reservation to interview Indigenous patrol teams that have cracked down on illegal fishing and hunting there. Pereira helped create those patrols in response to the increasing absence of a government presence in the area under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro. Phillips was working on a book during the trip, and the two men were headed home when they vanished.

Witnesses saw the Oliveira brothers in a boat behind Phillips and Pereira just before they were last seen, according to investigative documents from Brazilian federal police viewed by The New York Times.

Pereira’s work with the patrols had drawn him threats from illegal fishermen and hunters, including from Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, according to the documents. Univaja, a local association of Indigenous groups that helped organise the patrols, said Amarildo also showed a gun to a group that included Pereira and Phillips the day before they disappeared.

“For me, he’s not related to this. God will free him,” Francisco Conceição de Freitas, the brothers’ stepfather, said of Amarildo in an interview. The Times was unable to reach the Oliveira brothers’ lawyer.

Federal police officers arrive at the pier with recovered human remains found during the search in the Amazon.

Federal police officers arrive at the pier with recovered human remains found during the search in the Amazon.Credit:AP

Brazil has faced mounting international pressure to step up its response to the disappearance of the two men. In the days after they went missing, politicians, Indigenous groups and journalists criticised the government for taking too long to mobilise search teams. It prompted Bolsonaro to defend their efforts in front of other world leaders at an international summit in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, in an exchange in Britain’s Parliament, Theresa May, the former prime minister, asked the government to make “this case a diplomatic priority”. She asked it to “do everything it can to ensure that the Brazilian authorities put the resources necessary to uncover the truth and find out what has happened to Dom and Bruno”.

Phillips and Pereira went missing in the Javari Valley, an Indigenous reservation believed to be home to at least 19 Indigenous groups that have little contact with outsiders. The area is also plagued by illegal fishing, hunting and mining. Such illegal activity has surged under Bolsonaro, who has encouraged the development of the Amazon and cut the budgets of the agencies tasked with protecting it.

As government officials left, Pereira helped organise local Indigenous people to formally patrol the valley. In response, people who live off exploiting the land began delivering increasingly menacing threats.

There was an anonymous note that threatened Pereira by name, as well as a violent confrontation with Pereira’s colleagues in the main plaza of a nearby town, according to complaints filed with local authorities by Univaja.

Then, at about 6am on June 4, Phillips and Pereira were with an Indigenous patrol when a boat with three men known to be illegal fishermen passed and showed that they were armed, Univaja officials said. One of the men was Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, Univaja said.


The following morning, Phillips and Pereira began their journey home, travelling on the Itaquaí River in a new boat with a 40-horsepower engine and enough fuel for the trip. They disappeared along the route.

Police said the Oliveira brothers sank that boat using bags of soil near the location where they had buried the bodies.

Phillips was a seasoned correspondent who had reported from Brazil for 15 years, including for The Washington Post and a period as a freelance writer for The New York Times in 2017. His speciality was deep stories about vulnerable groups in hard-to-reach places in the Amazon, making him particularly experienced with the sort of journey that became his last.

On Monday, Phillip’s brother-in-law told reporters he had been told by the Brazilian embassy that bodies had been found. The embassy later apologised for the communication, saying it was wrong.

On Wednesday, Bolsonaro said Phillips was disliked in that part of the Amazon because of his reporting on illegal activities, and suggested it was “foolish” to go to the region unarmed.


“He should have been extra careful and he decided to go on an excursion,” the president said. “We don’t know if someone saw him and went after him. There are pirates on the river; there’s everything you can imagine there.”

Late Wednesday, authorities returned from their search for the bodies to Atalaia do Norte, a nearby city, and unloaded four heavy black bags from their boat.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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