Suspect confesses to killing pair missing in Amazon, leads authorities to bodies, Brazilian official says

A Brazilian federal police investigator reported Wednesday night that a suspect has confessed to fatally shooting an Indigenous expert and a British journalist in a remote part of the Amazon. The suspect took officers to where the bodies of the two men were buried, the investigator said.

Police said at a news conference in the Amazon city of Manaus that the prime suspect in the case confessed Tuesday night and detailed what happened to the pair, who went missing June 5. They said other arrests would be made soon in the case, but gave no details.

APTOPIX Brazil Amazon
A federal police officer escorts a suspect towards a river in the area where Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips disappeared, in Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas state, Brazil, Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

Edmar Barros / AP


The federal investigator, Eduardo Alexandre Fontes, said Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, 41, nicknamed Pelado, told officers he used a firearm to kill Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira of Brazil and freelance reporter Dom Phillips of Britain. 

“We would have no way of getting to that spot quickly without the confession,” Torres said of the place where police recovered human remains Wednesday, after being led there by Pelado.

Torres said the remains are expected to be identified within days, and if confirmed as the missing men, “will be returned to the families of the two.”

“We found the bodies three kilometers (nearly two miles) into the woods,” the investigator said, adding that rescue teams traveled about one hour and forty minutes on the river and 25 more into the woods to reach the burial spot.

Pelado’s family had said previously that he denied any wrongdoing and claimed police tortured him to try to get a confession.

Another officer, Guilherme Torres of the Amazonas state police, said the missing men’s boat had not been found yet, but police knew the area where it purportedly was hidden by those involved in the crime.

“They put bags of dirt on the boat so it would sink,” he said. The engine of the boat was removed, according to investigators.

The news conference at Brazil’s federal police headquarters in Manaus also included military leaders, who joined the effort to find Phillips and Pereira a few days after their disappearance was reported.

Brazil Amazon
A federal police officer stands guard as a suspect is transported to the area where Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips disappeared, in Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas state, Brazil, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. 

Edmar Barros / AP


The efforts to find the two were started by Indigenous peoples in the region. UNIVAJA, an association of Indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, mourned the loss of “two partners” in a statement Wednesday, adding they only had help and protection from local police.

As federal police announced they would hold a news conference, colleagues of Pereira called a vigil outside the headquarters of the Brazilian government’s Indigenous affairs agency in Brasilia. Pereira was on leave from the agency.

Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were last seen on their boat in a river near the entrance of the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, which borders Peru and Colombia. That area has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents.

Developments began moving Wednesday when federal police officers took a suspect they didn’t identify at the time out on the river toward search parties looking for Phillips and Pereira.

An Associated Press photographer in Atalaia do Norte, the city closest to the search zone, witnessed police taking the suspect, who was in a hood.

On Tuesday, police said they had arrested a second suspect in connection with the disappearance. He was identified as Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, 41, a fisherman and a brother of Pelado, who police already had characterized as their main suspect.

Police investigators said Wednesday that de Oliveira had not confessed to any participation in the crime, but added they had evidence against him.

Search operation for British journalist missing in Amazon jungle
Police officers and rescue team members stand on a boat during the search operation for British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who went missing while reporting in a remote and lawless part of the Amazon rainforest, near the border with Peru, in Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas state, Brazil, June 12, 2022.

Bruno Kelly / Reuters


Indigenous people who were with Pereira and Phillips have said that Pelado brandished a rifle at them on the day before the two men disappeared.

During the search, official search teams had concentrated their efforts around a spot in the Itaquai river where a tarp from the boat used by the missing men was found Saturday by volunteers from the Matis Indigenous group.

“We used a little canoe to go to the shallow water. Then we found a tarp, shorts and a spoon,” one of the volunteers, Binin Beshu Matis, told The Associated Press.

Authorities began scouring the area and discovered a backpack, laptop and other personal belongings submerged underwater Sunday. Police said that evening that they had identified the items as the belongings of both missing men, including a health card and clothes of Pereira. The backpack was determined to belong to Phillips.

On Monday, President Jair Bolsonaro said “human innards” had been found floating in the river and were undergoing DNA testing, according to AFP. It’s not clear whether those remains were linked to the ones found Wednesday.

Police had also previously reported finding traces of blood in Pelado’s boat

Authorities have said a main line of the police investigation into the disappearance has pointed to an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in the Javari Valley reserve, which is Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory.

One of the most valuable targets is the world’s largest freshwater fish with scales, the arapaima. It weighs up to 440 pounds and can reach 10 feet. The fish is sold in nearby cities, including Leticia, Colombia, Tabatinga, Brazil, and Iquitos, Peru.

Pereira, who previously led the local bureau of the Brazilian government’s Indigenous agency, known as FUNAI, has taken part in several operations against illegal fishing. In such operations, as a rule the fishing gear is seized or destroyed, while the fishermen are fined and briefly detained. Only the Indigenous can legally fish in their territories.

“The crime’s motive is some personal feud over fishing inspection,” Atalaia do Norte’s Mayor Denis Paiva speculated to reporters without providing more details.

AP had access to information police shared with Indigenous leadership. While some police, the mayor and others in the region link the pair’s disappearances to the “fish mafia,” federal police have not ruled rule out other lines of investigation, such as narco trafficking.

Torres, the federal police officer, reiterated that point Wednesday night, saying he could not discuss specifics of the investigation.

“We are working with several lines of investigation,” he said.

Bolsonaro, a frequent critic of journalists and Indigenous experts, has drawn criticism that the government didn’t get involved fast enough. Earlier on Wednesday, he criticized Phillips in an interview, saying without evidence that locals in the area where he went missing didn’t like him and that he should have been more careful in the region.

In 2019, Funai official Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was gunned down in Tabatinga in front of his wife and daughter-in-law. Three years later, the crime remains unsolved. His FUNAI colleagues told AP they believe the slaying was linked to his work against fishermen and poachers.

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