The failure by Brazilian authorities to arrest the criminal masterminds behind the murders of the British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira poses a grave threat to communities in the remote Amazon region where the pair were killed in early June, according to a prominent rights lawyer.
Eliesio Marubo, who helped coordinate a grassroots search-and-rescue mission in the Javari Valley, where Phillips and Pereira were attacked, is urging the international community to pressure the Brazilian government to find those who ordered the killings while safeguarding the Indigenous communities still under attack by economic interests and criminal gangs operating with impunity in the Amazon.
“In the Javari Valley, we are all Bruno and we are all Dom – we need protection because every day the threats against us are increasing,” Marubo, a lawyer for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja), said in an interview with the Guardian. “The murder of our friends was not an isolated incident. We know there are many interests in the region who had something to gain from their deaths – and the deaths of all environmental and Indigenous rights defenders, including ourselves.”
Marubo, who this week met with US lawmakers and rights organizations in Washington about the lawlessness in the region, added: “The three men arrested were not acting alone. We need a thorough independent investigation without interference from the government.”
Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were ambushed and shot dead on 5 June while traveling by boat on the River Itaquaí in the Javari Valley – an increasingly dangerous part of the Amazon rainforest that is home to one of the largest concentrations of uncontacted Indigenous communities in the world.
Phillips, a regular contributor to the Guardian, was working on a book about sustainable development called How to Save the Amazon, helped by Pereira, a former senior official at Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous protection agency, who had close relationships with local communities.
The threat to the Amazon and its Indigenous communities goes back decades, but violence, drug trafficking, illegal fishing, hunting, mining and logging have proliferated under Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismantled safeguarding agencies like Funai while encouraging the extraction of natural resources.
“The problems in our region are not new but the violence has escalated to unprecedented levels because under Bolsonaro, illegal operations have gone unpunished,” Marubo said.
After Phillips and Pereira went missing on 5 June, Marubo helped organise a search team of local Indigenous groups who knew the men and the remote terrain, while the Bolsonaro government dithered and made excuses.
“These men were not strangers. Bruno was a brother to all Indigenous people in the region and Dom played such an important role in telling our stories and sharing our struggle with the world,” he added. “The authorities did not do due diligence, but we were committed to returning the bodies to their families as a sign of respect.”
Amid intense international pressure and media attention, three men were arrested last month for their purported involvement in the killings, with one confessing to the crime and leading police to the buried bodies, according to authorities. Witnesses have said Pereira had previously been threatened by the suspects, who were allegedly involved in illegal fishing.
Indigenous leaders and security experts say the murders were the latest in a long line of grisly crimes directly linked to organized crime and illicit extractive projects in the area. But Bolsonaro and local investigators have said the killings occurred due to a personal dispute involving Pereira.
National police are reportedly investigating whether the detainees were hired hitmen, but officials have yet to reveal a motive or identify other suspects.
Marubo said: “The federal police have the technical and logistical capabilities – and the constitutional responsibility – to find out who ordered the killings, why and what interests were at stake. We have provided them with all the information we have about drug trafficking and other illicit trades in the region.”
Marubo has stressed the existential threat Indigenous people face under Bolsonaro during his talks with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Organization of American States’ secretary general, Luis Almagro, and numerous Democratic US lawmakers, including Senators Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley.
“Our right to life is being violated,” Marubo said. “We want the international community to remind the Bolsonaro government of its obligations and responsibilities to respect the rule of law and our right to live.”