Abraji: Illegal Fishers May Have Killed Amazon Expert and British Journalist

Published: 05 July 2022

Abraji AmazonPolice secures boat in which Pereira and Phillips were killed. (Photo: Pedro Prado/Abraji, All Rights Reserved)

By Vinicius Madureira

Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, who was last month murdered in the Amazon along with British journalist Dom Phillips, had found out that municipal officials were involved in illegal fishing and poaching on protected Indigenous land in the Amazon, Brazilian journalists say they were told by sources.

The two men were reported missing on June 5th, at least two months after Pereira started investigating complaints made by Indigenous people of illegal activities on their territory. He followed the tips along with environmental activists and the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja). Phillips was writing a book on how to save the Amazon.

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) helped two investigative journalists through its Tim Lopes Protection Program visit the place where the bodies of Pereira and Phillips were found and shed light on their assassination.

One of the municipal officials Pereira allegedly found to have been involved in the illegal operations in the Javari Valley is a relative of Amarildo da Costa Oliveira, alias “Pelado,” who was the first suspect arrested for the murder. He later confessed and helped authorities find the bodies.

An associate of Pereira told Abraji under the condition of anonymity that the illegal network was after the Pirarucu fish and the Tracajá turtle, nicknamed Amazon river turtle - two of the most desired species on the illicit market. Turtle’s eggs have also been collected and medium-sized mammals, such as tapirs and wild boars, were poached.

Poaching and illegal fishing in the Javari Valley violates Brazilian environmental laws and threatens not only the lives of the local tribes but also the survival of several animal species.

According to the source, the network organized expeditions to the protected areas that sometimes lasted up to 15 days and could cost from US$2,000 up to $4,000 but guaranteed four times that much in profit.

Pelado allegedly secured a constant flow of illicit goods to drug trafficker Rubens Villar Coelho, alias “Colombia,” who sent them to Colombia and Peru.

Pereira, on the other hand, was described as a rigid fighter for the protection of the environment.

Although the illegal network of poachers and fishers hid its boats to avoid detection, Pereira would find and damage the vessels and their engines, causing losses for the criminal group and inciting their anger.

When he was a coordinator of Brazilian National Indian Foundation (Funai) back in 2019, Pereira had led a mega-operation that destroyed about 60 ferries connected to illegal mining in the Amazon. Fifteen days later he was fired.

In April this year, Pereira reported to the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office that he had been receiving threats from a criminal group connected to illegal fishing and poaching in the region. A plan was devised with the Brazilian police so that not only he but other Univaja members keep informing the security forces about irregularities.

The source told the Abraji reporters that Pereira was providing information also to Phillips about the suspicious relations between illegal fishers, drug dealers and politicians in the region. The British journalist was writing a book about the Javari Valley Indigenous lands.

Pereira’s death is not an isolated incident. The source recalled the assassination of Maxciel Pereira dos Santos in 2019, who was a former employee of Funai. Santos was killed with two shots in the back of the neck while driving his motorcycle.

Pereira and Phillips were ambushed by Pelado and another fisherman shortly after they passed through the São Rafael community, where Pereira would usually meet with the leader of a fisherman community to work on the protection of the Pirarucu.

Pereira drove the boat and was shot in the back with a hunting rifle. He lost control of the boat which then made a sharp right turn, entering a flooded forest. Forensics experts believe the two men were shot in their chests soon after, taken from the boat, dragged on the shore and buried. Pereira was also shot in the right eye.

“We do not rule out the possibility that there is a mastermind. It is something that is talked about in the region,” Brazilian Federal Police Chief Domingos Pinzon said.