Police: Amazon fisherman confesses to killing missing men

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MANAUS, Brazil — A fisherman confessed to killing a British journalist and an indigenous expert in Brazil’s remote Amazon region and took police to a site where human remains were found, a federal investigator said after a dark 10 day search for the missing pair.

Authorities said they expected to make further arrests in the case of freelance journalist Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira of Brazil, who disappeared on June 5. None had been carried out on Thursday, but police said a search for the boat the two had used was about to restart.

They gave no immediate explanation for the motive for the killing, but officials earlier suggested that Pereira’s work to stop illegal fishing in an indigenous reserve had angered local fishermen.

Two federal police officials in the capital, Brasilia, told The Associated Press on Thursday that a total of five people were being investigated, including the fisherman who confessed and his brother who was arrested on Tuesday. as a suspect. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation, provided no further details.

At a Wednesday night press conference in the Amazon city of Manaus, Federal Police investigator Eduardo Alexandre Fontes said the prime suspect in the case, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, 41, told officers that he had used a gun to kill the men.

“We would have no way of getting to this place quickly without the confession,” Torres said of where police recovered human remains on Wednesday after being driven there by de Oliveira, nicknamed “ Pelado”.

“We found the bodies 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) into the woods,” the investigator said, adding that officers traveled about an hour and forty minutes by boat and another 25 into the woods to reach the location. of burial.

Torres said the remains were to be identified within days, and if confirmed to be the missing men, “would be returned to the families of both.” The federal police said in a statement that one of its planes would arrive in Brasilia Thursday evening with the body.

The suspect’s family previously said he denied any wrongdoing and claimed police tortured him in an attempt to extract a confession.

Another officer, Guilherme Torres of the Amazonas State Police, said the missing men’s boat had not yet been found, but police were aware of the area where it was believed to be hidden.

“They put bags of dirt on the boat to make it sink,” he said. The boat’s engine was removed, investigators said.

Pereira was on leave from the National Indian Foundation of Brazil, the government agency tasked with protecting indigenous peoples.

He “leaves an immense legacy for policies to protect uncontacted and recently contacted indigenous peoples,” the agency, known as FUNAI, said in a statement, calling him “one of the country’s leading experts. ” On the question.

“He was considered a reference for colleagues and indigenous peoples, with whom he built a relationship of friendship over the years.

President Jair Bolsonaro sent out a tweet on Thursday saying, “Our condolences to the family members and may God comfort everyone’s hearts.

Bolsonaro has frequently criticized both journalists and indigenous experts and his government has been accused of being slow to act on the disappearances. Before the bodies were discovered on Wednesday, he slammed Phillips in an interview, saying people in the area where he disappeared didn’t like him and that he should have been more careful in the area.

UNIVAJA, an association of indigenous peoples in the Javari Valley, lamented the loss of “two partners” in a statement on Wednesday, adding that they only had the help and protection of local police.

Pereira, 41, and Phillips, 57, were last seen on their boat in a river near the entrance to the Javari Valley indigenous territory, which borders Peru and Colombia. This area has seen violent conflicts between fishermen, poachers and government agents.

Natives who were with Pereira and Phillips said Pelado brandished a gun at them the day before the couple disappeared.

On Sunday, researchers found a backpack, laptop and other personal effects submerged underwater in the Itaquai River. The discovery came near a spot where a day earlier volunteers from the Matis Indigenous Group found a tarp from the missing men’s boat.

Police previously reported finding traces of blood in Pelado’s boat.

Authorities said a primary investigation has uncovered an international network paying poor fishermen to fish illegally in the Javari Valley Reserve, which is Brazil’s second-largest indigenous territory.

Pereira, who previously headed the local FUNAI office in the region, had participated in several operations against illegal fishing. which usually lead to the seizure of fishing gear and fines for offenders. Only natives can legally fish on their territories.

But the police did not rule out other motives, such as drug trafficking.

Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio, said Wednesday night that the discovery of bodies “puts an end to the angst of not knowing where Dom and Bruno are.”

“Now we can take them home and say goodbye with love,” Sampaio said in a statement. “Today we also begin our quest for justice.”

Pereira’s wife Beatriz Matos expressed her grief yesterday.

“Now that the spirits of Bruno are wandering in the forest and spreading over us, our strength is much greater,” she said on Twitter.

Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.

Associated Press writer Debora Alvares in Brasilia contributed to this report.

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