The Javari River in Atalaia do Norte in Brazil's Amazonas state.

The Amazon, undone

My friend was killed deep in the Amazon forest. I went to investigate.

My friend Dom Phillips and activist Bruno Pereira were shot dead in the Amazon. I traveled deep into the forest to find out why.

ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — There’s nowhere to hide on the water. Looking out from stilt houses high atop the bluffs, the river dwellers have a clear view of everything that putters down the Itaquaí. Nothing goes by unnoticed, not even the small aluminum motorboat that rounded the bend here early one Sunday in June.

The boat carried two men. One was Bruno Pereira, an activist investigating poachers in the nearby Indigenous territory. The other was Dom Phillips, a British journalist documenting his work. The men had left their Amazon rainforest encampment at dawn — early enough, they believed, to sneak past the river community where some of the poachers lived and make it back to town.

But a poacher known as Pelado was already awake. The wiry and hardened fisherman was standing outside his wood-plank house above the water filling a canister with gasoline, according to a confession he gave to police, when he spotted the boat.

He didn’t know Dom. But he recognized the bearish man piloting the vessel. It was his nemesis, the man he’d allegedly told others he wanted to shoot: Bruno.

Pelado put down the canister. He went to fetch his gun.

“There he goes,” he called to another fisherman, he later told police. “Let’s go kill him.”

Pelado and the other man headed down to the river, each carrying a 16-gauge shotgun. They climbed into Pelado’s boat and took off after the two men, vanishing around the river bend and setting in motion a series of events that would shock the country, draw worldwide attention to the criminal dismantling of the Amazon, and grow grimmer by the day. First, the disappearances of Dom and Bruno. Then the frantic searches. Then days of taut uncertainty. And finally the arrests, confessions and morbid revelations: Dom and Bruno had been shot dead, burned, dismembered and buried deep in the forest.

TOP: Yellow police tape seen on Aug. 17 indicates the approximate point on the Itaquaí River where Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were killed. LEFT: Indigenous people sing a sacred prayer at Bruno's funeral at the Morada da Paz cemetery in Paulista, in Brazil's Pernambuco state, on June 24. (Brenda Alcatara/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: Dom conducts interviews in the Indigenous village of Tiracambu, Brazil, in July 2015. He was there to report on the Awá, considered one of the world's most endangered tribes. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Prosecutors have filed murder charges against Pelado, who led investigators to the remains; his brother Oseney da Costa de Oliveira; and Jefferson da Silva Lima, the fisherman who accompanied Pelado. Five more inhabitants of the river community were accused by police of helping to hide the bodies. This was not an act committed by one solitary individual, police say. It was a community affair.

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The details haunted me then, just as they haunt me now. I knew both of the men who were killed. Bruno, 41, had been a senior official at Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency. He had once overseen its operations in the remote Javari Valley region where he was killed. And Dom, 57, was a friend. I remember his warmth and kindness the first time I spoke to him in 2014, when he was a Brazil-based contract writer for The Washington Post and I’d just started as a reporter for the paper. He was one of the first people I contacted when I came here as The Post’s new Rio de Janeiro bureau chief, and he immediately invited my wife, Emily, and me out to meet the other foreign journalists. I spoke with Dom just two weeks before his death.

[Read Dom Phillips’s work]

For months, I couldn’t stop thinking about their killings. Not only because I’d known the two men, and had frequently taken the same risks that led to Dom’s death, but also because I couldn’t make sense of what had happened.

What had fed Pelado’s hatred? What had driven a fisherman deep in the rainforest to kill two people out in the open — and believe he could get away with it?

President Jair Bolsonaro, a longtime critic of Indigenous protections, sought to blame the men for their own deaths — what happens when an “adventure” goes wrong in a “completely wild” region. The country’s vice president pinned the attack on alcohol, saying the killers had probably been drinking.

But a review of official records, interviews with dozens of people and a journey down the Itaquaí show that such explanations serve only to obscure the government negligence that enabled the killings. In recent years, the government has reduced its presence in the region, leaving the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory and its 6,000 inhabitants more vulnerable to outsiders. It then did little to address what followed: a surge in invasions by armed poachers, threats against the depleted security forces left behind, and the 2019 killing of a federal official investigating illegal fishing.

And then, when an Indigenous group moved to fill the void, enlisting Bruno to lead an Indigenous patrol team, authorities neither responded to threats made against the surveillance scouts nor dismantled the poaching network they exposed.

At its most basic interpretation, what led to the killings was the simple human motivations of hatred and greed. But the story of the deaths of Dom and Bruno also betrays the broader forces fueling the destruction of the Amazon.

Those elements — nearsighted government policies, weakened law enforcement institutions, criminal impunity — also propelled this story forward, until the end came and the lives of three very different men converged, out there along an isolated stretch of the Itaquaí, where the river bends and no witnesses could be left living.

A bend in the Itaquaí River.

CHAPTER 2

The man known as Pelado was born Amarildo da Costa Oliveira and raised in a time of conflict along the northern crest of the vast Javari Valley, home to the world’s largest concentration of uncontacted peoples. His community was at war with an isolated tribe just beyond the confluence of the Ituí and Itaquaí rivers.

The river dwellers, lured by a government promise of jobs and wealth, had come to settle this distant part of the Amazon along the borders of Peru and Colombia. But much of it was already occupied. The isolated Korubo, a warrior people who carried long wooden clubs, were waging a failing resistance.

To report this story

Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post’s Rio de Janeiro bureau chief, interviewed 51 people with knowledge of the killings and region and traveled down the Amazon River to the remote location where Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were shot to death. Defense attorney Aldo Raphael Mota de Oliveira declined to make the men charged in the killings available for comment. He said that Amarildo da Costa Oliveira and Jefferson da Silva Lima have confessed to the killings but that Oseney da Costa de Oliveira denies the allegations. Neither Funai, the Brazilian Indigenous affairs agency, nor the national security forces responded to requests for comment.

The years of Pelado’s childhood were filled with reports of killings, attacks and counterattacks, men skinned and Indigenous people massacred — constant violence that molded his community’s perception of the world. “We are civilized; we are not Indians,” said Alzenira do Nascimento Gomes, Pelado’s aunt, who helped raise him. “The Korubo are killers.”

In 1989, when Pelado was 9, a relative named Sebastião Costa heard that four Korubo had been near his house. The community was “terrified,” federal investigators wrote in a report on the incident. That night, Costa organized a group of 15 armed men to drive the Korubo off. They killed three, the investigators reported. One was shot in the chest. Two in the back. Fearful of reprisal, the river dwellers hid the evidence, throwing the bodies in a common grave. (Costa denied involvement in the killings. He has since died.)

The killings disturbed authorities. Funai had named the Javari Valley a protected reserve for its Indigenous population in 1985, drawing its first territorial lines. But the agency wasn’t enforcing the boundaries. Settlers were still plundering the valley’s resources freely, inciting more violence. A base for Funai agents was built at the confluence of the Ituí and Itaquaí, closing off the main entry point into the valley in 1996. Federal forces then swept the territory. They removed any settlers living inside. Many had been there for years and ended up along the riverbanks just outside the reserve. Many were related to Pelado.

“Our fields, homes — we lost everything,” said Pelado’s brother-in-law, Manuel Vladimir Oliveira da Costa. “Whatever we had was inside.”

Grievance over the valley’s closure led about 300 settlers to go to the confluence and surround the Funai base in February 2000. Calling themselves “the riverless,” they demanded the removal of the Funai forces and the authority to take what they wanted from the Indigenous territory, police reported at the time. Some held molotov cocktails. Others charged the base to retrieve confiscated fishing equipment.

It was a standoff, but some federal officials were sympathetic to the settlers. “We can’t deny their poverty,” Mauro Sposito, a detective with the federal police, wrote to his superiors. Prohibiting entry had left “innumerable families … with no alternatives for survival.” If nothing was done, he warned, “there will not be peace.”

But little help arrived. The territorial lines of the Javari Valley were made permanent in 2001. And a hatred began to grow in the river communities. Toward not just the Indigenous people with whom they had warred, but also their protectors in Funai.

The Funai base at the confluence of the Ituí and Itaquaí rivers.

CHAPTER 3

The uneasy new order was soon put to a test. In the summer of 2002, Funai needed the help of the river communities. The agency was plotting an expedition into the valley’s wilds to find an uncontacted people named the “flecheiros” — people of the arrow — and draw their territorial lines. It needed to recruit several master woodsmen to act as guides.

One was Pelado.

Paulo Welker, an expedition captain, looked along the Itaquaí for men who could withstand the mental and physical strain of three months in the jungle. He remembered Pelado — 21 years old, athletic, always smiling — as the perfect candidate. He could build canoes. Pilot tough river passages. Hunt and deftly wield an ax. Welker quickly hired him.

“Extremely agile and dedicated,” he said. “Anything you needed help with, he’d do.”

He paused.

“At the time,” he said, “I had no idea I had just arrested his uncle for illegal hunting inside the territory.”

It was a potentially volatile mix. Indigenous people and government experts would be working with river dwellers — a group normally hostile to them — and journeying hundreds of miles into the jungle. “The river communities view the Indigenous experts with hostility,” author Leonencio Nossa wrote in a book about the mission. And few of the woodsmen, he wrote, would “refuse an invitation to hunt Indians.”

Pelado and the other river dwellers rarely spoke to the Indigenous people. At dusk, each group clustered in its own camp. One night, in the dense forest, Pelado started to scream. He was dreaming that flecheiro warriors had infiltrated the camp, carrying axes and machetes. He yelled at them to drop their weapons.

“He woke up everyone,” Nossa recalled. “There was a fear there.”

Pelado kept that fear mostly hidden beneath smiles and an apparent desire to please. But one night around the fire, journalist Scott Wallace witnessed a different Pelado. The young man was talking about a frightful incident. Shortly before the journey, he’d been held up by bandits. Afterward, he’d wanted revenge, to “break” the men. Wallace asked what he meant. “ ‘Kill them,’ ” he said.

“That was when I began to think maybe Pelado isn’t the happy-go-lucky guy that I first thought,” said Wallace, now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut.

As years went by, as Pelado married and had five children, the challenges of the river exacted their toll and the easy smiles of his youth largely disappeared, friends and family said. Many river dwellers were embittered by the territory’s closure. But Pelado particularly was. He started sneaking past the Funai base to fish in prohibited waters. There was money to be made.

In the past two decades, an illegal fishing industry had taken off. Restaurants and markets in Brazil, Peru and Colombia were selling protected fish and turtles. Fishermen believed the best catch was in the Javari Valley. Law enforcement officials say a local crime boss started buying equipment for river people to increase their haul and then sell to him. Pelado got a speedy fishing boat with a 60-horsepower motor, and soon built himself another house, in the nearby river town of Benjamin Constant.

One relative, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, said Pelado’s ambitions were larger. The law enforcement presence was waning. The environmental agency Ibama had closed its regional base in 2018. Funai was cutting its patrol missions. In a territory nearly the size of Portugal, financial records show, the agency spent less than $250,000 in 2020 on law enforcement. The government, which never had a large presence in the region, seemed vulnerable.

TOP: Fresh fish is butchered in the municipal market of Benjamin Constant in Amazonas state. LEFT: Meat from pirarucu fish of unknown and possibly illegal origin is sold in the municipal market of Tabatinga in Amazonas. RIGHT: One of the numerous ceviche houses in Tabatinga that serve typical Peruvian dishes, mostly prepared with pirarucu filet meat.

Pelado got his gun. At night, people who know him said, he started shooting at the Funai base. He cursed the agency. “He was very aggressive,” the relative said. “Very.”

One night, the relative watched him drink in a bar. Pelado said there was one last thing holding him back. A local Indigenous association, the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Union, had started patrolling the rivers. The effort was led by a man Pelado already knew: Bruno, the former regional director of Funai.

“He said, ‘If we kill Bruno, we’ll be the bosses of everything here.’ ”

Then:

“ ‘I’m going to kill him.’ ”

The sun sets over the Javari River in Atalaia do Norte.

CHAPTER 4

When I heard Dom and Bruno were missing, I called everyone I knew in the region. The announcement by the Indigenous union had been troubling. The patrol team that the two men were visiting had received threats shortly before Dom and Bruno failed to show up as expected in the city of Atalaia do Norte. But I tried to hope for the best. There’s little cellphone service in the Amazon. It’s not unusual for hours, even days, to pass without hearing from someone.

Then night fell. I messaged Eliesio Marubo, the attorney for the Indigenous union and a member of the Marubo people. I told him I was nervous. Dom was an experienced journalist who’d lived in Brazil for 15 years. He’d been all over the Amazon. But the region was swarming with drug traffickers and environmental criminals. Marubo himself rarely went anywhere without an armed guard. What did he think happened?

“They definitely suffered an attack,” Marubo wrote back.

The next morning, I received a string of audio messages. They were from Orlando Possuelo, another activist who led the Indigenous patrol team with Bruno. The normally jovial Possuelo sounded exhausted, defeated. Bruno and Dom’s disappearance had become a global news story. Possuelo said security forces were arriving from all over. But he wasn’t optimistic. The first to report the men missing, he’d already scoured the Itaquaí. One river dweller had told him he’d seen a large boat following Dom and Bruno — Pelado’s boat.

“I just stood there, without hope,” Possuelo said. It was Pelado who had threatened the surveillance team days before. Dom and Bruno, he said, were very likely dead.

None of this information was yet public. I planned to write a story. But first, I called Dom’s wife, Alessandra Sampaio. I didn’t know what to say, but knew she had to hear this from me rather than read it in the newspaper. As the phone rang, I thought about the last time I’d seen her. Dom loved soccer, and we’d gone to a hilltop bar in Rio to watch the Brazilian club Flamengo play Liverpool. Flamengo lost, 1-0, and other patrons were furious, but Alessandra didn’t seem to care. She’d been vibrant that night, joking and laughing the entire time.

Now her voice was catching.

She was sitting in her apartment, waiting for news. I told her what I’d learned. People didn’t think Dom and Bruno were coming home. She absorbed the information. But she wasn’t ready to accept it, at least not yet. There was still this image in her head. It was Dom, and he was injured in the woods. Night was descending. And she couldn’t get to him. She started to weep.

“This is anguishing,” she said. “The river is full of traffickers and loggers. Life doesn’t have any value to them. They kill for nothing.

“They need help. I need help.”

People from the Kanamari Indigenous group in the Javari Valley live in precarious conditions on the edge of the Javari River.

CHAPTER 5

Few people knew the dangers and difficulties of the region better than Bruno. He had come to the valley in 2010 to work at the Funai regional office. It’s not an easy posting. The remote city of Atalaia do Norte has limited medical facilities and school options. The internet rarely works. But Bruno requested the slot. He wanted to protect isolated Indigenous communities, and the Javari Valley was where they were particularly vulnerable.

“He kept saying we need to protect the isolated Indians,” said Danielle Moreira, a friend. “He was such an Indigenista that he could have only been born that way.”

TOP: Members of the Kanamari Indigenous group live along the Javari River in difficult conditions, often without basic infrastructure such as potable water and sanitation. LEFT: A Kanamari family who live on the Javari River. RIGHT: Kanamari family members examine the leg of a child who injured his knee in falling off his bike.

Named Funai’s regional coordinator for the Javari Valley in April 2012, Bruno obsessed over territorial security. The vastness of the reserve belied its vulnerability. Many of the rivers that veined the land were unpatrolled. Invaders were exploiting the Curuçá River, so Bruno opened a base there. Then he increased law enforcement. Between 2012 and 2015, according to Funai records, his team stopped at least 45 boats and seized thousands of pounds of wildlife.

Threats followed, but Bruno didn’t stop. He instead bought a gun. From then on, he carried a chrome .380 Taurus.

If they come shooting, he told friends, at least I’ll be able to defend myself.

But in truth, few worried. At that time, the Funai office had security. The support of the armed forces. And a fiery leader in Bruno, who was uncowed, stringing together successes that would make him one of Brazil’s most renowned Indigenistas. He led daring expeditions to make contact with isolated groups. He helped negotiate a truce between the warring Korubo and Matis in 2014. And he learned to speak four Indigenous languages. Then came a promotion and a transfer to Brasília, where he became national director of the department for the isolated Indigenous.

“That was when more of the problems started,” said Beatriz Matos, his wife.

National politics were shifting. With the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the leftists who had governed Brazil for 14 years were replaced by leaders who were more likely to see the rainforest as a resource to be tapped, not preserved.

Funai’s budget was slashed. The number of agents dropped to a 25-year low. And the country was soon in the thrall of Bolsonaro, who was promising to “take a scythe to Funai.” The bellicose rhetoric seemed to encourage invasions of the Indigenous territories, which surged all over the country, including in the Javari Valley. The prospect of violence against Funai workers, once remote, suddenly seemed likely.

“The reality has changed,” Funai officials in the valley wrote in a 2019 technical report.

Weeks after Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, poachers attacked the river base on the Ituí and Itaquaí. The first assault came in the middle of the night, when the base was riddled with at least 17 shots. Then it happened again and again. Within a year, poachers had opened fire on the base at least eight times, instilling a “collective feeling of insecurity,” wrote 11 Funai agents, including Bruno. They said that they’d been forced to abandon many law enforcement duties out of fear of being killed and that they needed help.

“There have never been reports of such intense pressure against Funai,” the agents wrote. “But nothing has been even minimally altered, and no word has come as to additional support.”

One agent who never stopped working was Maxciel Pereira. Set to take regional command over the river bases, Pereira continued to seize illegally caught fish on the Itaquaí. Shortly after one apprehension, in September 2019, he returned home. That evening, he was sitting on his motorcycle when he was approached from behind and, in front of his wife and stepdaughter, shot twice in the back of the head.

“Killed like an animal,” said his mother, Noemia Pereira dos Santos. “Like he wasn’t even a person.”

Weeks after that killing, Bruno was removed from his leadership position and soon replaced by a former missionary who had proselytized in Indigenous communities. Bruno requested leave from the agency. Citing the death of his friend Pereira, the “climate of tension” and the “fragility of the entire Indigenista agency,” he wrote that he needed a break.

He was done with Funai. But not the mission.

Bruno had once overseen operations at the Funai base that guards the entrance to the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory.

CHAPTER 6

Paulo Marubo watched the rising violence, increasingly worried. In Atalaia do Norte, he was hearing that Funai was finished, and everything the director of the Javari Valley Indigenous union saw seemed to confirm the contention. Funai had failed to stop the attacks on its base, arresting not one person. Its new Bolsonaro-appointed director was installing inexperienced loyalists throughout the agency. And it seemed powerless to stop the poaching incursions.

“So I thought, ‘Let’s do it ourselves,’ ” Marubo said.

Marubo toured other Indigenous territories to see how they defended themselves. From those visits rose the idea of a patrol team. It seemed simple: Perform the work that Funai wasn’t doing. Equip Indigenous scouts with cameras, drones and satellite trackers. Send them out to monitor the poachers, mark their locations and obtain identifying details. Then give the findings to authorities so they could make arrests.

One of Marubo’s first calls was to Bruno — “the only White person I’ve ever met who was really worried about the people of the Javari.” For Bruno, it was an opportunity to return to the field. His wife encouraged him to take the job.

“He was really unhappy in Brasília,” she said. “This was a chance to do what he most enjoyed: go into the forest with the Indigenous.”

LEFT: Paulo Marubo, 44, director of the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples Union, in Atalaia do Norte on Aug. 16. RIGHT: Valdir Marubo works at a computer at the Indigenous union's headquarters in Atalaia do Norte. Photos in the background portray people from the region.

With funding from the U.S.-based Indigenous advocacy organization Nia Tero, they prepared for months. The first mission came in August 2021. Directed by Bruno and Possuelo, a patrol team of 18 headed up the Ituí and Itaquaí in three aluminum boats and took pictures. In the months that followed, the surveillance squad returned repeatedly to the rivers. They discovered the streams poachers navigated to breach the Indigenous territory, where they fished and hunted, which animals they caught — and how easy it all was.

“Evident impunity,” the team reported to authorities.

[Takeaways from The Post’s investigation of deforestation in the Amazon]

It was one of 10 letters team members sent to Funai, the local federal attorney’s office, the national security forces and the federal police between February and May — a detailed account of their work. They shared a list of alleged poachers, described the hierarchy of the illegal fishing trade and warned of the rivers’ mounting lawlessness. Federal attorneys met several times with the surveillance team and requested a police investigation. But few arrests were made, and no security was provided.

The team repeatedly cited Pelado in the correspondence. They said he led a team of six fishermen armed with 16-gauge shotguns. They alleged he entered the prohibited territory at night and poached for days. He was seen as capable of violence. Once, when Bruno was passing his stilt house on the Itaquaí, he fired a single shot over his head.

The threats intensified. Fishermen opened fire on the surveillance team in early April, the Indigenous scouts reported. Weeks later, on April 19, two poachers approached the squad’s leadership as they relaxed in Atalaia do Norte’s central plaza. According to a police report, a poacher tried to punch one of the men, and warned that he knew where he lived and would put a bullet “in his face.” Another fisherman told Possuelo that what had happened to Pereira — executed atop his motorcycle — would happen to them, too.

Possuelo was shaken. He messaged Bruno.

“It was expected that the tension would rise,” Bruno replied. “We have to be careful because the danger will escalate.”

Three days later, an anonymous letter was found under the door of Eliesio Marubo, the Indigenous union’s attorney. Its writer accused the union of persecuting “workers who fish to survive,” and pitting “the Indian against family workers.”

The letter cited Bruno by name.

“We know who you are, and we’ll find you and settle the score,” it said. “I’m only going to let you know this once, that if you continue in this way, it will be worse for you.”

Again, Bruno didn’t stop. He put in the paperwork to buy a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

A stretch of the Itaquaí River near where Bruno and Dom were killed.

CHAPTER 7

Early last year, Dom messaged me with news: “We’re leaving town.” After more than 10 years in Rio, he was moving to northern Brazil. He’d won a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which supports ambitious journalism, and was planning on writing a book on the Amazon.

Dom had spent years covering the crises besetting the forest, reporting for both The Post and the Guardian. But he was tired of writing about the problems. He wanted to understand the solutions. The book title he chose: “How to Save the Amazon.”

Months of reporting and many trips — to witness the cultivation of sustainable foods, to study how illegal goods could be tracked — culminated in another excited message from Dom. “I’m due to deliver the book at the end of the year,” he wrote me in late May. “After what will be 2 years of work.”

He needed to make just one last trip. He would soon depart for the Javari Valley. His old friend Bruno, whom Dom had once shadowed for an article, was helping to lead a team of Indigenous scouts trying to repel the poachers. He told Alessandra it would be a short trip. He’d follow Bruno down the Itaquaí, meet the surveillance team, interview some fishermen and return home by the next week to finish his book.

When he reached Atalaia do Norte, he learned of troubling developments. Pelado, he heard, had sent the warning shot over Bruno’s head. Other fishermen had fired on the scouts. Bruno, apparently inured to the threats, seemed to brush them off. But before boarding the boat late that week, Dom brought up the warning shot again.

“He was worried about that,” said Possuelo, who saw the men off. “He was definitely worried.”

There wasn’t much time for second thoughts. The aluminum boat had only a 40-horsepower motor, slower than others on the Itaquaí. It would be nearly four hours before they reached the distant surveillance team, patrolling the waters near the Funai base. They’d have to hurry to make it before nightfall.

TOP: The shack where Dom and Bruno spent the last night before they were killed. LEFT: Footprints seen on Aug. 17 on the dock outside the shack where Dom and Bruno spent their last night before being killed. RIGHT: A housekeeper shows the shack where Dom and Bruno stayed.

“I probably won’t have signal again until Sunday,” Dom wrote Alessandra in Portuguese. “I love and miss you.”

The forest they entered was like something out of a history book, vast and impenetrable. This was not the Amazon of the devastated southeast — an unrecognizable wash of cattle pastures and smoky horizons — but an Amazon of wild sounds and vibrant greens. As they serpentined down the murky Itaquaí, signs of civilization receded. The only markings of humanity were three small enclaves of stilted homes: Cachoeira, São Rafael and São Gabriel, where Pelado lived. Up ahead they found the Funai base, the last vestige of state power before the Javari Valley, and the shack beside which the surveillance team had set up camp.

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THE WASHINGTON POST

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THE WASHINGTON POST

Soon after, just after dawn on Saturday, Dom spotted from the shore the man he’d heard so much about.

Pelado was going upriver toward the territory in his big boat, dragging three canoes. The surveillance scouts Dom had been shadowing set out to follow him and warn the Funai base. Pelado turned to face his pursuers. He lifted his shotgun above his head, the scouts said, in warning. Then he took a canoe to the stilted river house where Dom and Bruno were staying. Bruno was standing on the patio, watching him arrive.

Pelado was wearing a belt studded with shotgun cartridges.

“Take his photo,” Bruno called out.

Dom, witnesses said, hid behind a tree and snapped a picture.

That night, Bruno said he was concerned. To return home, they’d have to pass Pelado’s house again. He wanted several scouts to accompany them. But the next morning, he said he’d changed his mind. He was worried the Indigenous escorts would “go hungry” without a place to stay in the city, said one witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. Besides, Bruno said, Pelado would never expect them so early.

As the sun broke over the river, Bruno gathered the intelligence the team had collected, the photos and coordinates. Then he and Dom climbed back into the aluminum boat and embarked. The only protection they had was Bruno’s .380 Taurus. His shotgun hadn’t yet arrived.

Sunrise on the Javari River in Atalaia do Norte.

CHAPTER 8

According to the confessions:

It didn’t take long for Pelado to catch up to Dom and Bruno. His boat, equipped with a 60-horsepower motor, gained rapidly: 300 feet, 200 feet, 100 feet. Bruno never turned around. When they were within 60 feet, Pelado and Jefferson opened fire. Bruno was hit in the back. The large man spun around and pulled his Taurus. He returned fire, letting off five or six rounds. None found their target. Bruno was struck again in the back. He started to faint, and to lose control of the boat. Then Dom was shot, in the ribs, on the right side. The boat collided into thick vegetation on the riverbank. Jefferson approached the boat. Dom was dead. Jefferson shot Bruno once more in the face, Pelado told police, “to be sure.”

The boat was towed into the forest, down a nearby stream. The bodies were thrown into the water. Two of Pelado’s family members soon arrived.

“What are you doing?” one asked, Pelado recalled in his confession.

“We killed them,” Pelado said.

“This is crazy,” the family member responded. “Why have you done this?”

They killed Bruno, Pelado told police, because the activist had called him an “invader” and had wanted Bruno’s picture to be taken. They killed Dom, according to a confidential witness interviewed by police, because they couldn’t leave any witnesses.

[Bruno Pereira, expert on Brazil’s Indigenous communities, dead at 41]

More river dwellers arrived to help conceal the killings. They submerged Dom’s backpack underwater and tied it to some branches. They loaded Bruno’s boat with six sacks of clay and sank it to a depth of 20 meters (65 feet). The bodies were set on fire. When the flames failed to destroy them, either Jefferson or Pelado — they each accused the other — dismembered the bodies with a machete. They dug a grave in the middle of the woods. Six people heaved the remains inside and closed the grave.

The burial took four hours.

The São Gabriel community on the banks of the Itaquaí River, where Pelado lived.

CHAPTER 9

After Pelado led police to the remains, after the charges and confessions, I sat with the police reports. It took me three attempts to read them. One passage lodged in my mind: “Dismembered, segmented, burned and buried in the clay soil.” Such precise savagery in the words.

Walking up the wood-plank path from the Itaquaí to São Gabriel, Pelado’s community, I again felt disbelief. It was completely silent. Nearly every house was deserted. No one wanted to live in São Gabriel anymore. The community school, its walls still papered with children’s drawings, was shuttered.

But Pelado’s door was open. Led into the house by a relative, I saw the shack was virtually empty, more noticeable for what was not there than what was. There was almost no furniture. Not a single family photo or decoration. Nothing that didn’t attend to a bare need. Just a sheetless mattress, a bunched fishing net, a pile of dirty clothing, a solitary spoon on a banister. It was as if no one had ever really lived there at all, and never would again.

TOP: A child runs through Pelado's home in São Gabriel on Aug. 17. LEFT: A fishing net in Pelado's house in São Gabriel. RIGHT: Pelado’s 18-year-old son, Amarilson de Freitas Oliveira, in the family's home in Benjamin Constant on Aug. 19.

Pelado’s other house was in a working-class neighborhood in Benjamin Constant. I knocked on the door. A shirtless young man appeared. It was Pelado’s 18-year-old son, Amarilson de Freitas Oliveira. He was watching an American action movie dubbed into Portuguese. No one else seemed to be home. As he spoke, he couldn’t make eye contact.

Amarilson said a lot of people thought Bruno got what was coming to him. He’d been “persecuting” fishermen and gold miners, and particularly his father, for too long. Bruno’s killing was just what happens, he said, “when someone is being persecuted for a long time” and they react with a “hot head.” If it hadn’t been Pelado, he said, “another person would have done it.” He said he hadn’t lost any affection for his father. He went to visit him shortly after his arrest. He said Pelado hugged him and started to weep. “He said, ‘I couldn’t take it anymore, son. He was persecuting me.’ ”

Amarilson kept his eyes on the television screen.

“It seems all of this backlash happened only because of that journalist,” he said. “Wrong place at the wrong time.”

His indifference disturbed me. I thought of the men killed, men I had known.

Dismembered, segmented, burned and buried in the clay soil.

I had one more question. Did he have any sympathy for Dom’s family and all they had lost?

There was a long pause.

“Yes,” he said, but added no more.

The Washington Post's Terrence McCoy reports in the community of São Rafael on the Itaquaí River.

CHAPTER 10

There’s a day I think of often. It was a Sunday in November 2020. The weather was dreary and chilly. Rain was coming. I messaged Dom to see if he wanted to get an afternoon beer. But he had other, bolder plans: hitting the water. Did I want to go to the beach?

I went down to Copacabana to wait for him. Within a few minutes Dom arrived on his bike, smiling and relaxed. This part of Copacabana beach — where the waves are calm and the horizon full of mountains — was Dom’s favorite place on the water. He said everyone in Rio needs a sport. His was stand-up paddle boarding. “Nice, light exercise,” he called it. He was already dragging his board into the water.

I’d never done it before and was a little nervous. But Dom gave me instructions that made me feel good, confident in myself. He had a way of doing that.

“Coach Dom,” a friend who’d come along called him.

Dom eased out into the waves and started paddling, heading into deep waters.

[Dom Phillips, journalist who chronicled Amazon deforestation, is dead at 57]

Once, a few months after the coronavirus infiltrated Brazil, when it felt as if the world was going mad and anything was possible, I messaged Dom. The Rio hospital system was on the brink of collapse. There weren’t enough hospital beds for everyone. Bolsonaro was dismissing the severity of the disease, and Brazil was on its way to registering one of the world’s highest death tolls. Some foreigners I knew had already fled the country. I had asked him if he had considered going back to Britain.

He answered without hesitation: No, he said. “This is my home.”

Dom loved every bit of Brazil, from the northeastern city of Salvador, where he would move with Alessandra, to the Amazon rainforest where he would be killed, to this view now extending out before him. He was sitting on his board, facing the beach. No sight better captured for him life in Rio — the water, the mountains, the city and favelas beyond.

He stood up and turned.

He paddled some more — out past the tip of the Copacabana military fort, farther than I had the courage to go. I remember him out there: skies darkening behind, rains coming, and Dom paddling farther and farther out, turning back to smile, blue eyes alight.

Gabriela Sá Pessoa in São Paulo contributed to this report.

About this story

Editing by Matthew Hay Brown. Copy editing by Vanessa Larson and Martha Murdock. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Translation support by Gabriela Sá Pessoa. Design and development by Allison Mann. Design editing by Joe Moore. Project management by Jay Wang.