Fisherman confesses to killing men missing in the Brazilian Amazon

Police officers carry a black bag
Police officers carry a bag with human remains found during a search in Atalaia do Norte, in the Brazilian Amazon.
(Edmar Barros / Associated Press)

Brazilian police said a fisherman has confessed to killing British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the remote Amazon, ending more than a week of searching as he led officers deep into the forest to where he buried their bodies.

After night fell Wednesday in the Javari Valley, near Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia, search teams brought body bags to the docks at the city of Atalaia do Norte. Officials said an autopsy would be needed to confirm whether the remains are those of Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41.

Police officials said at a news conference Wednesday night in the Amazon city of Manaus that the prime suspect in the case confessed the previous 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.


Brazilian Federal Police investigator Eduardo Alexandre Fontes said the prime suspect in the case, 41-year-old Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, told officers he used a firearm to kill the men.

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

Fontes said the remains were 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 officers traveled about an hour and 40 minutes by boat on a river and 25 minutes overground in the woods to reach the burial spot.

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De Oliveira’s family had said previously that he denied any wrongdoing and alleged that police had tortured him to try to extract a confession.

Another officer, Guilherme Torres of the Amazonas state police, said that the missing men’s boat had not been found yet but that 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, the capital of Amazonas state, also included military leaders, who joined the effort to find Phillips and Pereira a few days after their disappearance was reported. Indigenous leaders who sounded the alarm over their disappearance and made searches deep into the forest from the first day were not invited.

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Bolsonaro has been a frequent critic both of journalists and Indigenous experts, and his government was accused of being slow to act in the disappearances. Before the bodies were discovered 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.

His main adversary in October’s election, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said in a statement that the killings “are directly related to the dismantling of public policies of protection to Indigenous peoples.”

“It is also related to the current administration’s stimulus to violence,” said Lula, who leads in opinion polls.


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

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As the Federal Police announced they would hold a news conference, colleagues of Pereira held a vigil outside the headquarters of the Brazilian government’s Indigenous affairs agency in Brasilia, the national capital. Pereira was on leave from the agency, known as FUNAI.

Pereira and Phillips 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 among 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, reported seeing 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 Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, whom police already had characterized as their main suspect.


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

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

Official search teams 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.

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 the missing men, including a health card and clothes of Pereira. The backpack was said to belong to Phillips.

Police previously reported finding traces of blood in Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira’s boat. Officers also found organic matter of apparent human origin in the river that was sent for analysis.

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Authorities have said a main line of the police investigation 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.


Pereira, who previously led FUNAI’s local office in the region, took part in several operations against illegal fishing, which usually lead to seizure of fishing gear and fines for violators. Only the Indigenous inhabitants can legally fish in their territories.

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“The crime’s motive is some personal feud over fishing inspection,” Atalaia do Norte Mayor Denis Paiva speculated last week while speaking to reporters, without elaborating.

Though some police, the mayor and others in the region link the pair’s disappearances to the “fish mafia,” Federal Police have not ruled out other lines of investigation, such as narcotrafficking.

Torres, the state 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.

Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, said late Wednesday that the discovery of the bodies “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,” Sampaio said in a statement. “Today, we also begin our quest for justice.”


Pereira’s wife, Beatriz Matos, paid tribute to him Thursday.

“Now that Bruno’s spirits are strolling in the forest and spread on us, our strength is much bigger,” she said on Twitter.