There is no longer any hope that British journalist Dom Phillips, 57, and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, 41, are still alive. The two disappeared a week and a half ago in one of the most remote regions of the Brazilian Amazon. Two brothers, one of whom had been arrested several days earlier, confessed to being involved in the double murder of Phillips and Pereira.
The victims were shot, their bodies cut up and burned in the jungle. The reason given by the two brothers was that the journalist and the expert had disturbed them while they were illegally fishing in the Vale do Javari indigenous reserve.
This simple motive has been questioned, however, as both men have been linked to the drug mafia by various sources. They stated that a third person was involved in the killings and fired the fatal shots.
On June 5, Phillips and Pereira took a boat down the Itaquaí river in the extreme north-west of Brazil, where the country borders Peru and Colombia. But they never arrived at their agreed destination, the town of Atalaia do Norte.
Since then, indigenous patrols have been searching for them. Brazil security forces joined the search; However, there was criticism because this is said to have been done half-heartedly. Pereira had received death threats in the past because he was working with the Vale do Javari indigenous people to try to stop the activities of various mafias in the reserve.
Police are now looking for the bodies of Phillips and Pereira. At a press conference in Manaus on Wednesday evening, she announced that human remains had been found at the place where the two confessors said they had burned and buried the bodies.
It’s a sad reality that environmental activists live extremely dangerous lives in Brazil. As the NGO Global Witness recorded for 2020, 20 activists were murdered in the country because they stood in the way of the economic interests of large landowners or the timber mafia, for example. Brazil is the fourth most dangerous country for people committed to preserving the environment and traditional ways of life, behind Mexico, Colombia and the Philippines.
However, the fact that a foreign journalist was murdered while doing his job in Brazil is an absolute novelty and an indication that Brazil has lost its rights under ultra-right President Jair Bolsonaro, especially in the Amazon region. Since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, his government has repeatedly encouraged criminal groups, such as illegal gold miners, to penetrate indigenous reserves and environmental protection areas. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, often insults, slanders and ridicules indigenous people, environmentalists and journalists.
The government has also cut funding, personnel and powers from the once relatively powerful environmental protection agency Ibama, and filled key positions with often incompetent military supporters of the president. The Funai Indian Protection Agency suffered the same fate.
The now murdered Bruno Pereira was once one of the most renowned and experienced Funai employees and an expert on isolated peoples. Paradoxically, however, he was sidelined after leading a successful operation against illegal gold miners in 2019. He then took a leave of absence and worked privately with the indigenous peoples of Vale do Javari. The reserve is the second largest indigenous reserve in Brazil and is the size of Portugal.
Among the approximately 6,400 indigenous people who live there are also natives who have had little or no contact with the outside world. Dom Phillips, who was one of the most experienced foreign correspondents in Brazil and most recently worked for the British “Guardian”, was researching a book about Amazonia in Vale do Javari.
It is believed that Pereira and Phillips died because the drug mafia, which operates in the extremely sparsely populated border region between Peru, Colombia and Brazil, had put Pereira on the hit list. The men who confessed acted on behalf of the mafia, writes the newspaper “O Globo” in a report. The drug mafia uses illegal fishing in the region to launder drug money.
The two men would have fetched tons of valuable fish from the rivers in the reserve for the mafia, such as the meter-long and coveted pirarucu. However, Pereira, together with patrols of the indigenous people, prevented them from doing so, for example by confiscating entire boatloads. Pereira and indigenous leaders then received death threats.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had already indirectly blamed Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips for their deaths a few days ago when he said that the two had embarked on an adventure – as if they had gone for fun.
Now he followed suit. “This Englishman,” he said of Dom Phillips, “was not well received in the region because he wrote a lot of articles against illegal gold miners and on environmental issues.” It sounded as if Bolsonaro now even wanted to justify the double murder. He did not utter a word of condolence to the families of the dead. The Folha de São Paulo newspaper wrote that Bolsonaro was manifestly incapable of empathy.
Several journalists’ associations, including Reporters Without Borders, issued a statement saying: “We do not accept that horror and darkness rule Brazil. Brazil is not an adventure!” And the environmental organization Greenpeace Brazil wrote: “How long will we tolerate a government that condones these crimes?” The Bolsonaro government is turning Amazonia into a region dominated by organized crime.