I knew the men murdered in the Amazon—and their alleged killer

The slayings of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira mark a new escalation in the battle for the Amazon, its resources, and its Indigenous defenders.

The brutal murders of a British journalist and an Indigenous rights activist this month in the Amazon hit especially close to home for me. I knew them both; I know the community and the stretch of river where the killings took place. Most uncannily of all, I know the confessed killer. His name surfaced as a suspect within a few days of the pair’s disappearance on June 5 in the Javari Valley, an immense wilderness region of rain forest and snaking rivers along Brazil’s borders with Peru and Colombia.

Dom Phillips, 57, had taken time out from reporting for The Guardian newspaper to work on a book about the Amazon, and we had compared notes on several occasions about our experiences in the rain forest, sharing tips and contacts. Bruno Pereira, 41, was an Indigenous rights activist who dedicated his life to defending Brazil’s most vulnerable populations. He was a reluctant warrior—kind and gentle, the father of three children, including two toddlers.

Pereira had served as a valuable source for many stories I’ve written for National Geographic. Sometimes I identified him by name. More often I did not, to protect him from hostile bosses who had taken over FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, since the start of rightwing populist Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency in 2019. A veteran field agent with expertise in protecting isolated tribes, Pereira had to watch his back under Bolsonaro, who from the get-go made rolling back protections of Indigenous lands and the environment a centerpiece of his agenda.

Phillips’ and Pereira’s confessed killer is a lanky, 41-year-old fisherman named Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, known to all by his nickname Pelado, or “Baldy.” As soon as I heard him mentioned in the news, I was certain he was the same person I had come to know 20 years ago. Oliveira was a skilled backwoodsman who could swing an axe with deft precision into a log he stood on, just a few inches from his bare feet, without so much as a flinch. He was among 10 non-Indigenous frontiersmen who had been recruited, together with 20 Indigenous scouts from three different tribes, to join a Brazilian government expedition into the heart of the sprawling Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in 2002. The mission was to track, but not make contact with, a mysterious, seldom-glimpsed tribe called the flecheiros, or Arrow People.

The expedition was led by renowned Indigenous rights activist and explorer Sydney Possuelo, founder and then-director of FUNAI’s Department of Isolated Indians. In the late 1980s, Possuelo had pioneered Brazil’s extraordinary no-contact policy to protect highly vulnerable isolated tribes from forced contact by outsiders. In 1996, he’d been instrumental in the creation of the 33,000-square-mile Javari reserve, an ecological and cultural treasure of primal forest that harbors the world’s largest concentration of Indigenous communities living in extreme isolation, the so-called “uncontacted” tribes. Possuelo invited photographer Nicolas Reynard and me to document the expedition for National Geographic.

At the time of the reserve’s establishment in the late 1990s, Possuelo oversaw the expulsion of hundreds of non-Indigenous miners, loggers, hunters, and fishermen who had been helping themselves to the region’s abundant timber, fish, and wildlife. Some resettled in a string of communities of wooden shacks built on stilts and joined by catwalks, just down the Itacuaí River from the reserve’s boundaries. Among the settlers in one of those hamlets was the family of Oliveira. Many of the displaced families seethed with resentment for the creation of the Javari reserve, for the Indigenous people, and for those allied with them.

How had the affable, 21-year-old wilderness trailblazer I remembered from 2002 morphed into a hardened criminal who witnesses say routinely poached large quantities of forbidden fish and game and joined armed assaults on government outposts? Had he become a triggerman in an escalating war for the Amazon, its resources, and its Indigenous defenders? (Brazilian authorities say two other suspects are in custody in connection with the murders, and they are seeking five more as possible accessories to the crime.)

Going back into my notebooks from 20 years ago, I found traces of a darker side to Oliveira. The week before the start of the expedition, he told me around the campfire one night, he and two other fishermen had been assaulted by masked bandits as they made their way through a furo – one of the many shortcuts between bends in the region’s twisting rivers that open up during the high-water season. The assailants took their outboard motors, shotguns, and 200 kilos of fish. Oliveira and his friends paid the local police to find the culprits and “break them,” he said. I asked what he meant. “Kill them.” Only the presence of other police officers at the time of their arrest spared the lives of the bandits, he said. It was precisely in one of those narrow shortcuts on the Itacuaí River that Oliveira and at least one other accomplice ambushed and murdered Pereira and Phillips.

Impact of government’s faltering protection efforts

Experts say the Javari has become an even more dangerous place in recent years, especially for Indigenous people and environmental defenders. The biggest reason, they say, are Bolsonaro’s stridently anti-Indigenous, anti-environmental rhetoric and policies. These have encouraged a surge in deforestation and invasions of Indigenous territories by ranchers, loggers, miners, and adventurers of every description, while giving organized criminal syndicates room to operate across wide swaths of the Amazon with impunity.

“Today, invaders of Indigenous lands have the protection of the government, all the way up to Bolsonaro,” says Possuelo, who is now retired and living in Brasilia. “They act with more daring, behave more aggressively, because they feel protected by the government.”

Under Bolsonaro, the budgets for FUNAI and the environmental protection agency IBAMA have shriveled. Experienced field hands have been reassigned or dismissed, replaced with political loyalists. Shortly after taking charge in 2019, FUNAI’s Bolsonaro-appointed president, Marcelo Augusto Xavier da Silva, dismissed 15 field coordinators without warning. Perhaps most ominously, he removed Pereira from the helm of the Department of Isolated Indians, where he’d served for the previous 14 months. In the days before being sacked, Pereira oversaw a coordinated heliborne strike with IBAMA, federal police, and army units that destroyed dozens of gold dredges operating illegally along the Javari’s eastern flank. The operation earned Pereira the enmity of some powerful and dangerous people. It was the last major strike against criminals plundering resources in the Javari reserve.

Questions sent to the FUNAI leadership regarding the recent murders, as well as the agency’s faltering efforts to protect the Javari and other Indigenous territories, went unanswered.

After his removal from the sensitive post, Pereira took unpaid leave from FUNAI and returned to the Javari. He had spent several years in the 2010s there, where he acquired a depth of knowledge about isolated tribes and how best to protect them. With FUNAI’s capacity and will to defend the reserve crumbling, he volunteered to organize and train an all-Indigenous territorial vigilance force to deter incursions. He showed patrol members how to organize logistics and trained them in the use of georeferenced photos and video, radio communications, and drone technology. Pereira invited Phillips to the Javari to document his work and meet members of the vigilance patrol. While out with the team on June 3, they clashed with Oliveira and two other fishermen.

According to witnesses from the Indigenous vigilance team, the fishermen shouted threats and pointed their rifles menacingly at Pereira and Phillips, who recorded the confrontation on video. His images added to a trove of evidence gathered by the Indigenous patrols of environmental crimes committed inside the reserve that Pereira planned to turn over to federal police on the day the pair disappeared.

“Sure, it’s dangerous. Our teams are out there, confronting the intruders,” said Paulo Marubo, general coordinator of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley, or UNIVAJA, when I reached him by phone last week at his office in Atalaia do Norte on the Javari River. “It’s a risk, but if we don’t do anything, if we don’t face this, who’s going to do it for us?”

Three years ago, FUNAI contractor Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was assassinated in broad daylight by a motorcycle hit team in the nearby city of Tabatinga, located on the main trunk of the Amazon River. Santos was known to have had several run-ins with fishermen and wildlife hunters in the Javari. Shortly before his death, he was part of a team that caught poachers red-handed inside the reserve with 300 turtles and a cache of 40,000 turtle eggs. His murder was never solved.

With the latest killings, Indigenous leaders perceive a disturbing trend in the fight to preserve their lands and resources. “The level of violence directed against Maxciel and the manner in which they killed Bruno and Dom Phillips shows there is a real hatred for the defenders of the environment and Indigenous people,” said Beto Marubo, UNIVAJA’s national representative, who left Atalaia last week for Brasilia in the face of repeated death threats. “We believe there is a strong connection between what happened to Maxciel, what happened to Bruno, and the invasions of the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory.”

Suspected links to organized crime

The increasingly brazen intruders are no longer small-time players with a net or rifle seeking to put a meal on the family table. Members of the Indigenous patrols say that more and more, poaching crews appear to be highly-capitalized ventures, backed by a shadowy network of outside investors with suspected links to the illicit drug trade. Their fishing boats feature high-horsepower motors, and they carry large quantities of fuel, expensive gill nets, ice, and hundreds of kilos of salt to preserve bushmeat and critically endangered pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. In a rare police action, officers in March intercepted fishermen leaving the reserve with two dozen endangered river turtles, 650 pounds of salted bushmeat, and nearly 900 pounds of salted pirarucu.

The evident outlays of cash create both the ability and the imperative for fishermen such as Oliveira to head deeper into the Javari territory, stay there longer, and return with hefty payloads to settle their debts. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Oliveira may have owed a Peruvian financier nicknamed “Colombia” more than $15,000 because a load of his contraband had been intercepted by the Indigenous patrols.

As intruders penetrate into the depths of the Javari, Indigenous leaders and their allies fear the growing likelihood of a conflagration involving the uncontacted nomads roaming the forest. “They’re definitely putting the isolados—the isolated ones—at risk,” says Orlando Possuelo, Sydney’s son, who is based in Atalia do Norte and has been working alongside Pereira in advising the Indigenous patrols for the past two years. Poachers are pillaging the animals the isolated groups depend on for survival. And uncontacted groups remain highly vulnerable to contagious diseases, for which they have little to no immunological defense. Finally, and perhaps most immediately, there’s the very real danger of violence. “These fishermen don’t hesitate to shoot,” Orlando says. “If they’re willing to kill outside the reserve, there’s no doubt the lives of the isolated ones are in danger.”

An uncontacted Indigenous group would have no way to peacefully communicate with interlopers entering their territory. Their likely first response would be to attack, which could provoke a bloodbath when intruders respond to spears or arrows with far more lethal bullets, says Paulo Marubo. “Anyone knows what the results will be between those carrying firearms and those who do not have them.”

The hope of averting that alarming possibility was what led Pereira to risk his life. “The greatest concern that I have is the advance of outsiders—be they for projects authorized by the government or illegal players like loggers, miners, and land-grabbers—into the territories of the isolados,” Pereira told me in a phone call in 2019 after he was ousted from heading the isolated tribes department. “At the same time, you have the crippling of FUNAI and the department to protect the isolated tribes. It’s a very dangerous mix.”

Indigenous leaders of the Javari say they will not be intimidated by the murders of Pereira and Phillips, and that the vigilance patrols will continue.

“His memory strengthens our spirit to fight, to defend the territory,” Marubo says. “Before Bruno fought for us, and now we will fight for him.”

Police officers now say, despite their earlier statements that the crime appeared to stem from a personal dispute, that they are investigating a possible link between the murders and a larger web of organized crime.

Scott Wallace is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

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