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2 years after Bruno & Dom’s murders, Amazon region still rife with gangs

  • Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were shot to death on June 5, 2022, launching outcries and a wave of attention on the Javari Valley.
  • The region, near the tri-border area of Brazil, Peru and Colombia, has been beset by gangs that profit from drug trafficking, illegal logging and fishing, and land-grabbing.
  • Friends, relatives and Indigenous organizations now say the international uproar wasn’t enough to curtail local crime.

“Unfortunately, with your passing, we have succeeded!” Beto Marubo wrote to his friend Bruno Pereira in a farewell letter a few weeks after Pereira’s murder. “We have managed to make everyone see our problems. We have exposed how forgotten we, the Indigenous people of the Javari Valley, have been …”

British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were shot to death June 5, 2022, in a remote area of Brazil’s Amazonas state. Phillips, a longtime Guardian reporter, was in the Javari Valley researching a book about rainforest conservation with Pereira as his local host.

Pereira was one of the most prestigious Brazilian Indigenous experts and was serving as a consultant for an Indigenous organization after working several years at Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, Funai.

They were ambushed by a group of illegal fishermen, possibly in response to Pereira’s investigation of environmental crimes in the region. The murders shocked the world, leading to an international outcry for justice.

In his goodbye letter, Beto denounced the authorities’ neglect of the region, which has suffered for decades from violence caused by mining and illegal fishing associated with drug trafficking. A member of the Javari Valley Indigenous Peoples’ Union, UNIVAJA, he also expressed his hope that the state would begin to look at the region more carefully after the tragedy.

Two years after the crime, however, little seems to have changed. “Some people have been arrested for the crime, but the motives that led to the murders are still there,” Beto told Mongabay by phone. “Two years after their deaths, Brazilian authorities still have not given an answer about what happened to Dom and Bruno. The feeling of insecurity is still very strong. Dom and Bruno are still lost, figuratively speaking, in my land.”

Protesters demand justice in Washington, D.C.
The murder of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips sparked international outrage. Protesters demand justice in Washington, D.C. To date, nobody has been convicted for their murders. Image © Tim Aubry/Greenpeace.

The Javari Valley includes a massive Indigenous reserve of the same name, covering 85,000 square kilometers (33,000 square miles) and is home to the world’s largest number of isolated Indigenous groups.

Recently, the Javari Network, linked to the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples reported a threatening invasion of hunters near isolated groups in the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory. It stated that the Marubo Indigenous people from the upper Curuçá River region came across signs of invaders in the territory, such as plastic salt bags, boots and fiber bags. The traces indicate that the invasion was carried out by hunters who killed wild animals for commercial purposes.

Also, the UNIVAJA surveillance team, an organization founded in 2020 to monitor the territory, stated that the number of reported crimes within Indigenous lands has remained high since the group began its activities. “On May 7, for example, Indigenous people found a fishing camp within an IT,” Orlando Possuelo, a member of UNIJAVA’s monitoring sector, told Mongabay by phone. “When they got there, the fishermen ran away and left behind hundreds of animals that had been captured and more than 140 kilos [308 pounds] of game meat.  We constantly collect reports from Indigenous people who are leaving their villages toward the city and finding traces of all types of crimes.”

At the time of the murders, the region was suffering the harshest consequences of the far-right administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who ran Brazil from 2019 to 2022. The leader, who promised to seek to weaken the land rights of Indigenous peoples, worked relentlessly to roll back enforcement of Brazil’s once-strict environmental protections.

Bolsonaro dismantled environmental agencies such as the Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, and Funai; he cut the environment protection budget and encouraged deforestation. His policies led to the deterioration of the situation in the region, which already was suffering from decades of illegal activities. According to an Indigenous Missionary Council report, published in 2023, there had been a 180% increase in illegal invasions of Indigenous lands by goldminers and loggers during the Bolsonaro administration, and violent deaths of Indigenous people rose 54% by comparison with the previous four years.

On Oct. 30, a few months after the crime, Brazilians started to hope for a drastic shift in environmental policy when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil in a close runoff with Bolsonaro. The left-wing politician, who was elected under a pro-environment speech, began his third term with substantial changes.

Lula established a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs headed by an Indigenous person, Sonia Guajajara, rebuilt Funai and named the renowned Marina Silva to head the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. He also promised to recognize Indigenous land claims and to put a stop to illegal mining in Indigenous territories.

Longtime friends Bruno Pereira (at the center, with glasses) and Beto Marubo (at his right) have worked together for decades to protect the people of the Javari Valley. In 2018, they met with the Kanamari people, who live in the region. Image courtesy of Beto Marubo.

Sloppy progress

It didn’t take long for results to show. In January 2023, a federal government entourage landed in the Javari Valley and promised a greater state presence in the region to fight organized crime. Specific actions to punish environmental crimes were taken, and the budgets of environmental protection agencies were initially increased. In addition, a floating base was installed to reinforce security in the Javari Valley territory.

Lula also revoked a decree from the Bolsonaro administration that relaxed the rules for illegal mining on Indigenous lands. A year later, in early 2024, the government announced the launch of a plan coordinated by the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples to suppress crimes, expel invaders, destroy illegal facilities and ensure full monitoring of the territory.

However, Indigenous people in the region claim that these initiatives have not yet resulted in greater security for communities.

“We cannot compare the current situation with the one when Bolsonaro was president,” anthropologist Beatriz de Almeida Matos, Pereira’s widow, told Mongabay. “The land is not completely abandoned: There are people in the government, such as Marina Silva and Sonia Guajajara, committed to the Indigenous cause. There are also efforts to reestablish environmental agencies, which were completely run down,” said Matos, who is currently working as the director of the Department of Territorial Protection of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples, which is part of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.

However, Matos said these efforts are far from sufficient. “There is still a lot to improve. We still feel very insecure in that region. We need to intensify protection because organized crime took over,” she said. Also, according to the anthropologist, the resources assigned to environmental agencies are still insufficient. “There is still a dispute over resources within the government. There are many people working to protect the region, but they need to be valued. They need a budget to act.”

Dom Phillips, interviewing the Ashaninka Indigenous people
Dom Phillips, interviewing the Ashaninka Indigenous people in the state of Acre, as part of the research for the book he was planning on how to save the Amazon. Image courtesy of Wewito Ashaninka.

In fact, Lula’s discourse on reinforcing environmental protection has often been at odds with his administration. The president has often made concessions because Brazil’s Congress is controlled by a right-wing majority. “Since that visit in January 2023, things haven’t moved forward. On the contrary, the government has only taken very specific actions. The official response to our crisis is far from satisfactory,” Marubo said.

In the first month of Lula’s term, Univaja representatives met with the administration to present a proposal for protecting Indigenous people in the region. “The project was well received, but so far this is just a document that has not left the drawer,” Marubo said.

“Despite the fact that the whole world turned its attention to the Javari Valley and the vulnerability of the region’s Indigenous communities when Dom and Bruno died, we have not yet had a response from the state that is up to the task. When we ask for answers, they say they are prioritizing other demands,” Marubo said.

Brazil’s Ministry of Indigenous Peoples told Mongabay the federal government recently created The Javari Valley Integrated Single Command to improve security in the area. The local body has power to coordinate actions with representatives from five ministries, IBAMA, Funai, Federal Police and UNIJAVA.

“After the resumption of the State’s presence in the Javari Valley, 18 inspections were carried out in the Indigenous Land between 2023 and 2024 by Funai, IBAMA applied more than R$16 million [$3 million] in fines between October 2022 and the end of 2023 and the Federal Police carried out 34 operations against environmental crimes (…),” the ministry wrote in a statement. “In total, 134 people were arrested and R$470,000 [$87,500] were seized in 118 operations against drug trafficking in the region.”

However, the ministry recognizes that the agencies operating in the Javari Valley region need improved budgets and more personnel.

The widows of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, Beatriz Matos (right) and the widow of journalist Dom Phillips, Alessandra Sampaio (left), talked to journalists at Cine Brasília before the screening of a documentary honoring them two years after the murders. Image courtesy of Joédson Alves/Agência Brasil.

On the eve of the two-year anniversary of the murders, Phillips’ widow, Alessandra Sampaio, returned to the crime scene with members of the search teams that helped to find the corpses, which had been dismembered and buried 10 days after the crime.

At the visit, Sampaio announced the Dom Phillips Institute, an NGO dedicated to promoting the protection of the rainforest and its people. Possuelo, an Indigenous expert who also helped coordinate the search operation, accompanied Alessandra and reflected on the current situation in the region: “I believe that the new government has helped us move from total chaos, but it did not make enough efforts to improve the lives of people in the Javari Valley,” he said. “There is a lot of pro-Indigenous discourse in the government, but little practical action to curb illegal activities.”

Five arrests and many doubts

In the days following the murder, the police arrested the first three people on charges directly related to the crime: the local fishers and brothers Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, known as “Pelado,” and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, and Jeferson da Silva Lima. The crime, nonetheless, is nowhere near being fully resolved, in terms of all its connections, according to Pereira’s family lawyer, João Bechara Calmon.

Amarildo and Lima confessed to the crimes but later claimed that they had been threatened by Pereira and acted in self-defense. Oseney denied involvement in the case. In July 2022, the Public Prosecutor’s Office indicted the trio for double qualified homicide and concealment of corpses, and the Federal Court made them defendants.

Since then, the defendants have been held in federal prisons in Paraná and Mato Grosso. They are currently in prison, awaiting a possible jury trial.

Port of Atalaia do Norte, which receives indigenous people from communities in the Javari Valley. Image courtesy of Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.

“The lethargy of the Brazilian judiciary is the rule,” Calmon said. “Two years after the fact, even with the murderers’ confession, it would be surprising in other countries to be at this point in the process. But in Brazil it is not an exceptionally long time for our reality.”

In addition to the three defendants, two other people allegedly involved in the crime are in jail: Rubén Dario da Silva Villar, known as “Colombia,” accused of being the mastermind behind the murders; and Jânio Freitas de Souza, suspected of being his informant and ally.

Colombia had initially been arrested in July 2022 for presenting a false identity when testifying about the case but was allowed to leave prison three months later after paying bail of $15,000 reais ($2,800). In December, he was arrested again. Colombia is suspected as the leader of an illegal transnational fishing network that operated in the tri-border region of Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

Souza was arrested in January 2024 after the police identified that he was coercing witnesses in the case and was interfering with the progress of the case against him and Colombia. He is in provisional custody and is expected to be indicted for the double homicide and concealment of corpses.

Recently, investigators also discovered important links between the double homicide and the execution of another Indigenous activist, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, a Funai employee who was shot dead in 2019. The case was put on hold for months but was resumed after the deaths of Pereira and Phillips. The two investigations are moving forward together, with evidence and statements being shared. For the Federal Police, the organization behind the murders is transnational and is involved in illegal fishing and hunting, money laundering, tax evasion, misappropriation of public funds and corruption.


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