Suspect confesses to killing missing pair on Amazon, police say

MANAUS, Brazil — A Federal Police investigator said late Wednesday that a suspect confessed to shooting and killing an indigenous expert and a journalist in a remote part of the Amazon and took officers to where the bodies were buried .

Police told a news conference in the Amazon city of Manaus that the prime suspect in the case confessed on Tuesday night and detailed what happened to the couple who went missing on June 5. They said more arrests would soon be made in the case, but gave no details.

Federal investigator Eduardo Alexandre Fontes said Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, 41, nicknamed Pelado, told officers he used a gun to kill Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira from Brazil and the freelance journalist Dom Phillips of Britain.

“We would have no way to get to this place quickly without the confession,” Torres said of where police recovered human remains on Wednesday after being driven there by Pelado.

Torres said the remains should be identified within days, and if confirmed as the missing men, “will be returned to the families of both.”

“We found the bodies three kilometers (nearly two miles) into the woods,” the investigator said, adding that rescue teams traveled about an hour and forty minutes up the river and another 25 into the woods to reach the burial place.

Pelado’s family previously said he denied any wrongdoing and claimed police tortured him in an attempt to extract a confession.

Another officer, Guilherme Torres of the Amazonas State Police, said the missing men’s boat had not yet been found, but police knew the area where it was believed to have been hidden by those involved in the crime.

“They put bags of dirt on the boat to make it sink,” he said. The boat’s engine was removed, investigators said.

Federal police officers arrive at the pier after searching for indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and freelance British journalist Dom Phillips in Amazonas state, Brazil, June 14, 2022.

The press conference at Brazil’s federal police headquarters in Manaus also included military leaders, who joined the effort to find Phillips and Pereira days after they were reported missing.

President Jair Bolsonaro, a frequent critic of journalists and indigenous experts, has criticized the government for not getting involved quickly enough. Earlier Wednesday, he slammed Phillips in an interview, saying without proof that people in the area where he disappeared didn’t like him and that he should have been more careful in the area.

Efforts to find both were spearheaded by the indigenous peoples of the region. UNIVAJA, an association of indigenous peoples in the Javari Valley, lamented the loss of “two partners” in a statement on Wednesday, adding that they only had the help and protection of local police.

As federal police announced they would hold a press conference, Pereira’s colleagues called a vigil outside the headquarters of the Brazilian government’s indigenous affairs agency in Brasilia. Pereira was on leave from the agency.

Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were last seen on their boat in a river near the entrance to the Javari Valley indigenous territory, which borders Peru and Colombia. This area has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents.

The developments began on Wednesday when federal police officers took a suspect they did not identify at the time down the river to search parties looking for Phillips and Pereira.

An Associated Press photographer in Atalaia do Norte, the town closest to the search area, saw police take the suspect, who was in a balaclava, away.

On Tuesday, police said they arrested a second suspect in connection with the disappearance. He was identified as Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, 41, a fisherman and brother of Pelado, whom police had previously named as the prime suspect.

Police investigators said Wednesday that de Oliveira had confessed to no involvement in the crime, but added that they had evidence against him.

Natives who were with Pereira and Phillips said Pelado brandished a gun at them the day before the couple disappeared.

Official search teams have focused their efforts around a spot on the Itaquai River where a tarp from the boat used by the missing men was found on Saturday by volunteers from the Matis Indigenous group.

Authorities began searching the area and on Sunday discovered a backpack, laptop and other personal belongings submerged underwater. Police said that evening they had identified the items as belonging to the two missing men, including a health card and Pereira’s clothing. The backpack reportedly belonged to Phillips.

Police previously reported finding traces of blood in Pelado’s boat. Officers also found apparent human-made organic material in the river which was sent for analysis.

Authorities said one of the main lines of the police investigation into the disappearance has exposed an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in the Javari Valley reserve, which is the second largest territory. native to Brazil.

Pereira, who previously headed the local office of the indigenous federal agency, known as FUNAI, has been involved in several operations against illegal fishing. In such operations, as a rule, fishing gear is seized or destroyed, while fishermen are fined and briefly detained. Only natives can legally fish on their territories.

“The motive for the crime is a personal quarrel over the fisheries inspection,” Atalaia do Norte mayor Denis Paiva speculated last week, without providing further details.

While some police officers, the mayor and others in the area associate the couple’s disappearances with the “fish mafia”, federal police have not ruled out other avenues of investigation, such as drug trafficking.

Torres, the federal police officer, reiterated that point Wednesday night, saying he couldn’t discuss the details of the investigation.

“We are working with several lines of investigation,” he said.

After the news of the human remains’ recovery, Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, said the discovery “puts an end to the angst of not knowing the whereabouts of Dom and Bruno”.

“Now we can take them home and say goodbye with love,” Sampaio said in a statement. “Today we also begin our quest for justice.”

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