British journalist confirmed dead in Brazil, three suspects arrested

Veteran correspondent Dom Phillips (above) and his guide went missing in a remote part of the rainforest rife with illegal mining, fishing and logging, as well as drug trafficking. PHOTO: AFP

BRASILIA (REUTERS, AFP) - A third suspect in the murder of British journalist Dom Phillips in the Amazon rainforest was arrested on Saturday (June 18), Brazil’s federal police said.

Jeferson da Silva Lima was on the run, but surrendered to the police station of Atalaia do Norte in the remote Javari Valley bordering Peru and Colombia.

“The detainee will be questioned and referred to a custody hearing,” federal police said in a statement.

A forensic exam carried out on human remains found buried in the region on Friday confirmed they belonged to Phillips, 57. The remains of a second person, believed to be indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, 41, were still being studied.

Phillips, a freelance reporter who had written for the Guardian and the Washington Post, was doing research for a book on the trip with Pereira, a former head of isolated and recently contacted tribes, at federal indigenous affairs agency Funai.

They vanished on June 5 while traveling alone through the region by boat.

The police have so far arrested Amarildo da Costa Oliveira, a fisherman who confessed to killing the two men, and his brother, Oseney da Costa, who was taken into custody earlier this week.

Federal police said on Friday that the killers acted alone, information the local indigenous group Univaja contested, adding it had informed officials numerous times that there was an organised crime group operating in the Javari Valley, a wild region that has lured cocaine smugglers, as well as illegal hunters and fishers.

Police sources told Reuters the investigation is focused on people involved in illegal fishing and poaching in indigenous lands.

Phillips was identified through "forensic dentistry combined with forensic anthropology," the Federal Police said in a statement.

Activists have blamed the killings on President Jair Bolsonaro for allowing commercial exploitation of the Amazon at the cost of the environment and law and order.

For his part, Bolsonaro sought to lay blame at the door of the men themselves for undertaking a "reckless" trip in an area where Phillips was "disliked."

Phillips was working on a book on sustainable development in the Amazon with Pereira as his guide.

Pereira had received multiple threats from loggers and miners with their eye on isolated Indigenous land.

Army troops are demobilised in Brazil after helping in the search for British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, on June 17, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The Univaja association of Indigenous peoples, which had taken part in the search for the men, refuted the police's conclusion that the killers had acted alone.

"These are not just two killers, but an organised group that planned the crime in detail," Univaja said in a statement.

It claimed authorities had ignored numerous complaints about the activities of criminal gangs in the area.

Univaja said it had filed a report in April that "Pelado" was involved in illegal fishing.

He had previously been accused, it claimed, of "being the perpetrator of gun attacks in 2018 and 2019 against a base of FUNAI," the organisation Pereira had worked for.

Authorities receive bodies that were found in a remote region of the Amazon, on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Univaja said that "a powerful criminal organisation (had) tried at all costs to cover its tracks during the investigation" of the double murder.

Experts say illegal fishing of endangered species in the Javari Valley takes place under the control of drug traffickers who use the sale of fish to launder drug money.

'Brutal act of violence'

The United States on Friday urged "accountability and justice" for the murders.

State Department spokesman Ned Price offered condolences to the men's families, saying they were "murdered for supporting conservation of the rainforest and native peoples there."

On Thursday, the UN denounced a "brutal act of violence."

An aerial view of Atalaia do Norte, a municipality in the state of Amazonas, Brazil. PHOTO: AFP

UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said attacks and threats against activists and Indigenous people in Brazil were "persistent" and urged the government to step up protections.

Investigations continue to look into the motive for the crime.

Police have been unable to find the boat in which Phillips and Pereira were traveling when they were last seen.

Blood found in Oliveira's boat belonged to a man, investigators said, but not to Phillips.

Analysis had also revealed that entrails found in the river during the search, and linked to the men by Bolsonaro, contained "no human DNA," according to police.

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