When Noemia Pereira dos Santos heard that Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira had been murdered, she wept and thought of her own son Maxciel.
An officer in Brazil’s Indigenous protection agency, Funai, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos had worked closely with Bruno Pereira patrolling the increasingly perilous waters of the Javari valley region in remote Amazonas. Tracing illegal fishing and hunting operations, seizing guns and ammunition – it was poorly paid, precarious work, which many believe cost both men their lives.
In September 2019 Maxciel was shot dead in cold blood on the streets of the Brazilian city Tabatinga, which sits on the tri-state border between Peru and Colombia. Almost three years later, the murder remains unsolved.
“He never told us about the dangers of the work, so that we would not worry,” said Noemia, 65, at her small home in Tabatinga as she clutched her son’s green uniform. “But he said it was a job for brave men.”
“I believe his death was ordered by the same people who ordered Bruno’s death,” she said.
Noemia had not spoken publicly since Maxciel’s murder but said the deaths of Phillips and Pereira helped her to speak out and call for justice for her son. She has received no word on the ongoing police investigation in years, and the family does not have funds to pay for a lawyer.
“When I heard about Bruno and Dom, it was the very same sadness that came to me once again,” she told the Guardian. “We all demand justice.”
Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was her youngest of 11 children, whom she raised as a single mother. A photograph of him, stood rigid in his Funai uniform, adorns a wooden shelf in the corner of the living room next to a vase of flowers.
During a career at Funai that spanned 12 years, Santos earned a reputation as a diligent enforcer of federal laws protecting Indigenous people in the region. He was involved in a number of seizures – of ammunition, meat and salt –in the valley shortly before he was shot dead, said members of the Indigenous rights advocacy group Univaja, who share the family’s belief that Santos was murdered because of his work.
The area, almost the size of Ireland and Wales combined, has just a handful of Funai outposts and has seen a rise in illegal logging, gold mining, hunting and drug trafficking. Documents seen by the Guardian show that Santos’s assignment at the time he was killed was to “execute territorial monitoring and surveillance” in Indigenous territory.
“Bad people don’t die the way he was killed,” said Manoel Chorimpa, a Univaja member and former councilman in the riverside town of Atalaia do Norte.
Santos was shot twice in the head, according to an autopsy report. Family members said he was killed execution-style while riding his motorcycle on the street, with his partner sat behind him. He had been called back to Tabatinga at short notice while on assignment with Funai, according to multiple sources.
The Brazilian federal police did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation.
Santos’s death came just a few weeks before Bruno Pereira, his friend and mentor, left Funai amid sweeping changes at the agency under the newly elected Bolsonaro administration, aimed at curtailing its power and limiting its enforcement capacity.
Upon election the far-right leader sidelined Funai by moving it from the justice department to a newly created women, family and human rights ministry. The agency has also lost significant expertise, with 37 of the 39 regional Funai coordinators now coming from outside the office, most from the military and six with no government experience at all, according to a recent report by Indigenistas Associados and Inesc.
The report alleges many of the agency’s experts have been sidelined or fired under Bolsonaro with meaningful enforcement action now “impossible due to insufficient budget”.
In an unedited interview transcript with Bruno Pereira published by the newspaper Folha after his death, the former Funai official slammed the agency’s leadership under the current president.
“The more he [Bolsonaro] destroys, messes with internal regulations and threatens employees, the more he succeeds,” Pereira said in comments that were off the record at the time.
Internal Funai documents, written in the wake of Santos’s murder and reviewed by the Guardian, reveal that agents working in the Javari valley had pleaded with supervisors to send more resources to the region.
In a letter dated 16 January 2020, two Funai agents posted to the region asked their seniors stationed in Brasília to send more law enforcement resources, claiming the security situation had become untenable.
The letter lists 27 points, including the murder of Santos, which they claim is “possible retaliation for … seizing environmental contraband” and states that one Funai checkpoint in the region had come under gunfire seven times “creating a climate of impunity and fear among professionals who act to protect that Indigenous area”.
A spokesperson for Funai did not respond to questions about Santos’s murder. The spokesperson said the agency had requested more resources in the Javari valley region as recently as February 2022, but did not provide specifics.
Before his death, Santos had shared few details with his family, but they had noticed how precarious his work had become.
“The whole family voted for Bolsonaro, but it all got worse after he was elected,” said his older brother Oziel Pereira dos Santos. But Maxciel kept doing his job “because he loved the knowledge that came from the Indigenous people”.
The family remain incensed that little has seemingly been done to solve the crime. They said that they have been told they are not entitled to any compensation after his murder.
Santos left behind two young daughters, 17-year-old Gabrielle Cristine and 11-year-old Maria Eduarda, whom he had supported throughout their lives.
“He was a good father, and my life changed a lot after his death,” said Gabrielle Cristine. “We don’t starve but we don’t have money for new clothes.”
Although he shielded his children from the risks he took at work, they had a sense of the perils out on the river.
“He never told us,” said Gabrielle Cristine. “But then he never invited us to come with him either.”