By Camilo Rocha, Rodrigo Pedroso and Philip Wang
A suspect held over the disappearance of a British journalist and Brazilian indigenous affairs expert has admitted to killing the pair in a remote region of the Amazon, Brazilian authorities said at a news conference Wednesday.
Brazilian Federal Police identified the suspect as Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira. Police said he confessed on Tuesday night and indicated where the bodies of veteran correspondent Dom Phillips and researcher Bruno Araújo Pereira had been buried. The following day, the suspect took police to the area where the pair were allegedly killed — a 100-minute journey by speedboat and 3-kilometer (about 2 miles) trek into the jungle.
A second suspect, an unnamed 41-year-old man, has also been taken into custody on suspicion of the murders.
According to Federal Police representative Eduardo Alexandre Fontes, police are currently excavating the area and found human remains, which will be sent to Brasilia for forensic analysis on Thursday. Police could not confirm the deaths of Phillips and Pereira until the analysis was completed, he added.
Authorities refused to give any further details on Amarildo or how he allegedly killed the pair. Fontes also indicated Wednesday that the investigation is continuing and new arrests could be made “at any moment.”
Asked why authorities had not previously mentioned indigenous people’s help in the search mission, Fontes said it had been a mistake not to acknowledge their “fundamental” contribution.
Phillips and Pereira vanished on June 5, during a trip in the Javari Valley, in the far western part of Amazonas state. They were last seen in the Sao Rafael community, a two-hour boat ride from Atalaia do Norte city, after accompanying an indigenous patrol in the Itaquaí river organized to prevent invasions from illegal fisherman and hunters on the Javari Valley Indigenous Land.
On Tuesday, police arrested a second suspect in connection with the missing men, according to a news release from the Federal Police.
Police said the second suspect, a 41-year-old man, was being interrogated and would be referred to a custody hearing in the municipal court. They also said they seized some firearm cartridges and a paddle, which will be analyzed.
Phillips and Pereira disappeared while conducting research for a book project on conservation efforts in the region, which authorities have described as “complicated” and “dangerous,” and known to harbor illegal miners, loggers, and international drug dealers.
They had reportedly received death threats just days prior to their disappearance.
Their case has drawn global attention to the perils often faced by journalists and environmental activists in Brazil.
Between 2009 and 2019, more than 300 people were killed in Brazil amid land and resource conflicts in the Amazon, according to Human Rights Watch, citing figures from the Pastoral Land Commission, a non-profit affiliated with the Catholic Church.
And in 2020, Global Witness ranked Brazil the fourth most-dangerous country for environmental activism, based on documented killings of environmental defenders. Nearly three quarters of such attacks in Brazil took place in the Amazon region, it said.
Phillips had reported extensively on Brazil’s most marginalized groups and on the destruction that criminal actors are wreaking on the Amazon.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has criticized the pair’s trip since their disappearance, saying in an interview on YouTube prior to the suspect’s confession on Wednesday that Philips and Pereira’s activities were “reckless” and suggested that if they had been “killed,” the bodies would be missing in the Javari River.
Alessandra Sampaio, Phillips’s wife, issued a statement after Wednesday’s news conference, urging authorities to share more relevant details on the case and take necessary measures to prevent more killing.
“This tragic outcome puts an end to the anguish of not knowing Dom and Bruno’s whereabouts. Now we can bring them home and say goodbye with love,” she wrote.