Brazilian police have arrested five more people in connection with the killings of 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 in the Amazon region.
While providing few details, police said three of those detained during operations near Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia were wanted for helping to 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 the growing insecurity in the densely forested region.
Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41, went missing in the Javari Valley in western Brazil on June 5, at the end of a trip Phillips had arranged to report on a book on sustainable development. Phillips had written for the Observer and the Guardian, as well as for other publications.
Pereira, a former official at Brazil’s state agency for indigenous peoples, knew the area well and helped the Briton with his research.
The men were ambushed early one morning as they sailed their boat down the Itaquaí River. Police believe their attackers shot them to death 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 where they had buried their bodies.
Police believe the killers feared Pereira had photos 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 mafia are working with impoverished local fishermen to hunt the animals, often in indigenous sanctuaries where access is prohibited to outsiders.
They arrested a man last month for using false identity papers and said on Saturday they had identified him as Ruben Dario da Silva Villar, also known as “Colômbia”.
Police found strong evidence that Colômbia is the leader and financier of an armed criminal organization dedicated to 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.
According to local news reports, da Silva Villar would provide 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 the arrests, particularly those of Colômbia, confirmed their original claim – that the murders were not carried out by individuals working alone, but with the cooperation or orders of a local mafia.
“There has been a criminal organization 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 beginning of justice for our friends who have been brutally murdered.”
“This reinforces the need for the state to participate in an area that has been abandoned by the state,” he added.
The investigation continues.