Police have arrested a man linked to the killing of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira but officials in the Amazonian city of Manaus warned his detention has not yet produced any evidence he is implicated in the 5 June murders.
Media in the area around Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia where the couple went missing named Rubens Villar Coelho as a possible suspect in the case that brought global attention to the remote Amazonian region last month.
Coelho, who is known by the nickname Colombia, handed himself in to police on Thursday and offered to cooperate to clear his name.
However, “during his presentation to the investigating officer he produced a fake Brazilian ID document”, said federal police officer Eduardo Fontes.
Police then discovered he had other aliases in Peru and Colombia so arrested him and expect to hold him without bail, Fontes said.
Phillips and Pereira were travelling in a boat on the River Itaquaí when they were ambushed and shot dead by at least two men in early June.
Phillips was working on a book about sustainable development called How to Save the Amazon and Pereira, who had close contacts with local Indigenous groups, was helping him with interviews.
Three men were arrested last month for their involvement in the killings, with one of the three confessing to the crime and leading police to the bodies buried in a remote part of the rainforest, according to authorities.
Although officials have not revealed any motive for the brutal killings, it is believed that Pereira was the main target. A defender of Indigenous peoples and a former official with the federal government’s Indigenous foundation, he knew illegal fishing was going on in the area and it has been alleged that he was threatened before by at least one of the men detained by police.
Fontes said Coelho bought fish from local fishermen and they were investigating what links, if any, he had to the three men arrested for the murders.
“This person known as Colombia works with fishing and that is what we are investigating,” Fontes told reporters. “He says he works with legal fishing and we are looking to see if he is involved with illegal fishing.”
“He vehemently denied any participation in the crime. Our investigations are continuing.”
The revelation came on a day Amazonian deforestation hit a new record high.
About 3,988 sq km – an area equivalent to five times the size of New York City – were deforested in the six months to June 2022, according to data published by the Brazilian Space Agency.
The numbers were particularly worrying in the state of Amazonas. In the past, much of the worst deforestation came at the eastern edges of the forest.
But the numbers for 2022 were higher in Amazonas than any other state, indicating the front line is now concentrated in the southern Amazon.
“Destroying the Amazon as the climate crisis rages is like taking a hammer to the air-con in a room that’s already getting hotter,” said Greenpeace UK’s head of forests, Louisa Casson.
“With every hectare of forest that gets chopped down, we’re pushing this climate-critical ecosystem closer to the brink of collapse while also threatening the rights of Indigenous peoples.”