Brazilian police on Saturday arrested five other people in connection with the killings of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous activist Bruno Pereira, saying one of the suspects already in custody was likely the leader of an illegal fishing mob. based in the Amazon region.
While giving few details, police said three of those arrested in operations near Brazil’s borders with Peru and Colombia were wanted for helping bury the bodies of Phillips and Pereira.
All three are related to Amarildo da Costa Oliveira, one of three men charged last month with the double murder in a case that shocked the world and highlighted growing insecurity in the densely forested region.
Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41, disappeared in the Javari Valley in western Brazil on June 5, at the end of a trip Phillips had organized to report on a book on sustainable development. Phillips had written for The Observer and The Guardian, as well as other publications.
Pereira, a former official with Brazil’s state indigenous agency, knew the area well and was helping the Briton with his investigation.
The men were ambushed early one morning as they headed down the Itaquaí River in their boat. Police believe their assailants shot them dead and then carried their bodies into the jungle, where they were buried in the hastily dug grave.
However, two of the suspects confessed to the crime and led the police to the place where their bodies had been buried.
Police believe the killers were concerned that Pereira had photographs and evidence that they were fishing for endangered species in prohibited areas, including turtles and pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish.
A single pirarucu can fetch up to $1,000 in markets in Brazil and Colombia, and police believe criminal mafias team up with impoverished local fishermen to hunt animals, often on indigenous reserves where outsiders are off limits.
They arrested a man last month for using false identity documents and on Saturday said they had identified him as Ruben Dario da Silva Villar, alias “Colômbia.”
The Police “found strong indications that Colombia is the leader and financier of an armed criminal association dedicated to the practice of illegal fishing in the Javari Valley. [and] responsible for the sale and export of a large quantity of fish,” the federal police said in a statement.
Local news reports said da Silva Villar provided the local fisherman with boats, motors and bait.
Indigenous activists in the region welcomed the news “with great joy” and said it marked “the beginning of justice.”
A lawyer for the indigenous organization Univaja said that the arrests, and in particular the one in Colombia, confirmed his original thesis: that the murders were not carried out by individuals working alone, but with the collaboration or orders of a local mafia.
“A criminal organization has been working in the Javari Valley for a long time and today’s investigation, operation and arrests only reinforce that,” said Eliesio Marubo, a lawyer for Univaja. “So we feel represented. This is the beginning of justice for our friends who were brutally murdered.”
“This reinforces the need for the State to participate in an area that was abandoned by the State,” he added.
The investigation continues.