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Man confesses to killing missing journalist and colleague, police say

Federal police officers escort suspect Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira to a boat in Atalaia do Norte, Amazonas state, Brazil, on June 15, 2022. Police arrested Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and his brother, Amarildo, who they say has confessed to the killing of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira. (Avener Prado / Agencia Publica / AFP/ Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — A fisherman has confessed to killing a British journalist and a Brazilian Indigenous expert in the Javari Valley of the Amazon rainforest, police said Wednesday evening, and led investigators to an isolated location where human remains were recovered.

The announcement appeared to bring a grim conclusion to the disappearance of journalist Dom Phillips and government official Bruno Pereira in one of the country’s remotest regions, which has transfixed this nation and drawn new attention to the ongoing criminality that is dismantling the world’s largest tropical forest.

Authorities say the fisherman confessed to ambushing Phillips, a Brazil-based contributor to the Guardian and a former contract writer for The Washington Post, and Pereira, a longtime official of Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, this month in an uninhabited stretch of a river leading to the city of Atalaia do Norte.

“He confessed the practice of this crime and told us the details of where the bodies had been buried,” said Eduardo Alexandre Fontes, chief of the federal police in Amazonas state. “Upon proving that these remains are related to Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, our plan is to return them as quickly as possible to family.”

The human remains, he said, have been sent for analysis.

The man who police said confessed to the crime, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, was reported to have made threats against Pereira.

Oliveira, 41, known as “Pelado,” was arrested last week. Pereira had been investigating criminal activity by outsiders within the Indigenous reserve of the Javari Valley.

Brazil apologizes for telling journalist’s family bodies were found

“Our first mission was to find them alive, but unfortunately we bring this sad news to the family, to friends and the international press,” detective Guilherme Torres said.

The announcement was mourned by the Indigenous people with whom Pereira was collaborating and whose struggle against illegal invasions Phillips was documenting.

“An incalculable loss,” Univaja, the local Indigenous association, said in a statement.

The case has been followed closely in Brazil, where the Amazon forest and whether it should be developed or preserved has become one of the country’s most divisive issues. President Jair Bolsonaro, a vocal advocate for development who has defended illegal miners and deforesters, has cast blame on Phillips for his disappearance. In a statement Wednesday, he said the journalist was “disliked in the region.”

“He did a lot of stories against gold mining and on environmental issues,” Bolsonaro said. “In that region, a region extremely isolated, not a lot of people liked him. He should have redoubled his focus on taking care of himself. But he decided to make this excursion.”

Pereira and Phillips were last seen alive early on the morning of June 5, when they left a meeting with inhabitants of a riverside community. Initial hopes that the men were lost or suffered some mechanical issue quickly gave way to suspicions of foul play.

Read the work of British journalist Dom Phillips

Pereira, who was mapping criminal activity in the valley and collaborating with an Indigenous surveillance team to monitor and repel illegal land invaders intent on stripping it of its resources, had been threatened for the work. One threat sent to the Indigenous organization with whom he partnered cited him by name and warned that “it is going to be worse for you” if they didn’t stop trying to repel the illegal incursions.

Phillips, who was writing a book on conservation in the Amazon, recently got in touch with Pereira to discuss an expedition to the valley, a territory larger than South Carolina that’s considered the largest repository of uncontacted peoples in the world. Phillips told his wife, Alessandra Sampaio, that he expected to be out of the reserve within days, according to a statement she gave to investigators.

Sampaio said Phillips hadn’t told her he was under threat either before or during the expedition. She said he spoke “generically” of Pereira having been threatened and that the area was in conflict.

Phillips and Pereira were armed, Eliesio Marubo, an attorney for Univaja, told investigators. Marubo said he received a message from Pereira as the journey was set to begin. Pereira was worried about a meeting they were scheduled to have on June 5 with local fishermen, who have been accused of illegally fishing rivers inside the Indigenous territory. He said it “could end up being a problem.”

Hopes dim, anger grows in British journalist’s disappearance in Brazil

The men met up with an Indigenous surveillance team, which reported that they came into contact with fishermen. One of them allegedly flashed a shotgun at the surveillance team, a witness said in an investigative report that the federal police sent this week to Brazil’s supreme court.

Police accused Oliveira of earlier firing shots at a local base of Funai, the Indigenous affairs agency for which Pereira had worked.

Police arrested Oliveira soon after the men’s disappearance. They said they found blood on his boat and recovered munitions at his home.

Gabriela Sá Pessoa in São Paulo contributed to this report.