Brazilian police arrested five more people in connection with the murders of a British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous activist Bruno Pereira on Saturday, saying one of the suspects already in custody was likely the leader of an illegal fishing mafia based in the Amazon region.
Although they provided few details, police said three of those detained in operations near Brazil’s borders with Peru and Colombia were wanted to help 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 the west Brazil on June 5, at the end of a trip that Phillips had arranged to report a book on sustainable development. Phillips had written for the Observer and Guardian as well as other publications.
Pereira, a former official in Brazil’s state indigenous agency, knew the area well and helped the Briton with his research.
The men were ambushed early one morning as they were heading down the Itaquaí River on their boat. Police believe their assailants shot them dead and then carried their bodies into the jungle, where they buried them in the hastily dug grave.
However, two of the suspects confessed to the crime and led the police to the place where they had buried their bodies.
Police believe the killers were concerned that Pereira had photographs and evidence that they were fishing in restricted areas for endangered species, 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 work with impoverished local fishermen to hunt the animals, often in indigenous reserves where access to outsiders is prohibited.
They arrested a man last month for using fake ID papers and said Saturday they had identified him as Ruben Dario da Silva Villar, AKA “Colombia.”
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 amount of fish”, the Federal Police said in a statement.
Local news reports said da Silva Villar supplied the local fisherman with boats, motors and bait.
Indigenous activists in the region welcomed the news “with great joy”, saying it marked “the beginning of justice”.
A lawyer for the Univaja Indigenous organization said that the arrests, and especially the one in Colombia, confirmed their original thesis – that the killings were not carried out by individuals working alone, but with the collaboration or order of a local mafia.
“A criminal organization has been operating in the Javari Valley for a long time, and today’s investigation, operation and arrests only reinforce that,” said Eliesio Marubo, Univaja’s lawyer. “So we feel represented. This is the start 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.