Federal police have brought criminal charges against the former head of Brazil’s Indigenous protection agency for alleged acts of omission they believe indirectly paved the way for the murders of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips in the Amazon last year.
Brazil’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro made Marcelo Xavier the head of the Indigenous agency Funai in July 2019, six months into his environmentally devastating four-year administration.
Xavier – a former police chief who activists accused of playing a key role in the dismantling of Indigenous protections – was removed from his position in December after Bolsonaro lost the presidential election to his leftist rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In a dramatic development on Friday afternoon it emerged that Francisco Badenes, the federal police chief responsible for the inquiry into the murders of Pereira and Phillips, had formally accused Xavier of indirectly contributing to those crimes on the grounds that he had failed take steps to protect Funai workers in the Amazon.
The two-page federal police indictment, seen by the Guardian, is dated 12 May 2023 but was only reported on Friday afternoon by the Brazilian broadcaster TV Globo.
The accusation against Xavier is based on the legal concept of dolus eventualis – when a person is aware of the risk of a crime taking place but fails to act to prevent it. Another senior Funai official, Alcir Amaral, was indicted on the same charges.
Pereira worked for Funai until he was removed from his post in late 2019, two weeks after he helped lead an operation targeting illegal miners in the remote Javari Valley region where he and Phillips, a British journalist and longtime Guardian contributor, were killed.
At around the same time one of Pereira’s Funai colleagues, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, was shot dead in the city of Tabatinga. After that still unsolved assassination, Xavier was reportedly warned of the risk of further violence in the region but failed to act.
Pereira and Phillips were killed on 5 June 2022 after coming under attack while travelling down the Amazon after a four-day reporting trip looking at the situation facing Indigenous communities in the Javari region. Their bodies were found after a 10-day, Indigenous-led search.
Xavier sparked fury in the days that followed the men’s disappearance, wrongly insinuating that Phillips and Pereira had entered an Indigenous territory without government permission. A judge later ruled that the two men never entered Indigenous lands, conducting interviews outside the borders of the Portugal-sized territory.
Neither Xavier nor Amaral made any immediate comment about the accusations. Writing on Twitter last August, Xavier claimed the murders were being manipulated by leftist opponents of Bolsonaro’s government.
“The truth is that we investigated the facts swiftly and efficiently – which allowed us to give society a fast response,” the former Funai chief wrote.
Prominent leftwing politicians and Indigenous activists welcomed reports of the charges against Xavier.
The leftist lawmaker Guilherme Boulos denounced the former government’s “criminal omission”. “Under Bolsonaro’s command, Funai was warned of the risks Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips were running and did nothing!” Boulos wrote.
Since Lula took office in January, Funai has undergone a radical shake-up. It is now run by the Indigenous activist and politician Joênia Wapichana, while a ministry for Indigenous peoples has also been created under the leadership of another prominent Indigenous politician, Sônia Guajajara.
In an interview with the Guardian last year, the former Funai chief Sydney Possuelo said Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous actions meant “Indigenous people have never faced a worst moment in Brazilian history … because we are talking about a deliberate policy that comes from the president himself who gives cover to criminals and trespassers”.
Possuelo accused Bolsonaro of turning Funai into an “anti-Indigenous agency”, adding: “In the Bolsonaro era, everything has become so dangerous because you have a pre-planned policy that stems from the presidency and spills out into every single other government institution.”
Three fishers are being held in high-security prisons while a judge prepares to rule on whether they will face trial by jury: two brothers called Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and a third man called Jefferson da Silva Lima. A fourth man, a shadowy figure suspected of running an illegal fishing network in the Javari Valley region, was named as the mastermind in January, although he has yet to be formally charged.