Police investigating the murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous lawyer Bruno Pereira have identified five others linked to the killings, bringing the number of suspects in a crime that has shocked Brazil to eight.
Police had already arrested two brothers, one of whom confessed to the crime, and a third man surrendered to authorities on Saturday.
State police in Atalaia do Norte – the riverside town where Phillips and Pereira began their last journey – told the Guardian the five suspects are being investigated for their alleged involvement in helping the men to move the remains of Phillips and Pereira 24 hours after the shooting.
Investigator David Da Rocha described the investigation as “90 per cent complete”, saying the expected arrests were likely the last in the process. He said the five men he expected to arrest were relatives of the two detained brothers. Police were awaiting a court order to initiate the arrests and also hoped to charge them each with homicide.
Da Rocha maintained his belief that the murder suspects did not act on anyone’s orders and said the crime was not part of a larger criminal conspiracy. This characterization, shared by the Brazilian federal police, was vigorously opposed by indigenous activists in the region, who claimed that the killings were linked to organized crime groups.
Phillips was a British journalist who was looking for a book on sustainable development in the Amazon region and Pereira was helping him negotiate remote parts of the rainforest where he was doing interviews.
The couple were shot on June 5 and buried deep in the rainforest. Their bodies were discovered last week when one of the two brothers confessed to the crime.
Police said Phillips was killed with a bullet to the body, while Pereira was shot three times, two in the chest and abdomen area and once in the head. The weapons used in the murder were the type used by hunters, police said.
The announcement came as unions working at Brazil’s national indigenous agency, Funai, have called for a five-day strike for this week aimed at ousting the organisation’s president, who they say is working against the interests of the indigenous peoples of Brazil.
Officials from three unions are due to vote on the strike on Monday, but are confident members of a majority of Brazil’s 27 states will join in the shutdown, which is also intended to force authorities to broaden the investigation into the crime.
“The objective of the strike is to expel [the Funai president] Marcelo Xavier,” said Priscila Colotetti, executive director of Indigenistas Associados, an association of Funai employees. “Under Xavier, it’s not that indigenous policies are difficult to put in place, it’s that there are no indigenous policies. So we need a longer strike to put the pressure on.
“We are also pushing for a proper investigation into the murder of Dom and Bruno so that they find out who ordered the crime.”
Officials claimed last week that the suspects acted alone, but that conclusion has been questioned, including by local Indigenous groups, who have previously reported the presence of drug gangs and organized crime mafias in the area. .
The announcement added to the local population’s widespread lack of trust in state bodies such as the police and, increasingly, Funai.
The indigenous foundation has been undermined and underfunded by Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, current and former officials said. Bolsonaro wants to open up indigenous lands to loggers and miners, further threatening communities that have lived in the area for thousands of years.
Xavier’s place as head of an organization tasked with caring for and protecting approximately 235 native tribes has also been questioned, including by Pereira, a former Funai employee.
Xavier said that in the days following the couple’s disappearance, they had not obtained the necessary permits to enter indigenous lands, as required by Brazil. However, Indigenous groups said they did not need permits because they had not ventured into Indigenous territory. A judge agreed and told Xavier to remove his statement from the Funai website and refrain from disparaging the two missing men. Funai complied.
La Funai issued a belated statement on June 16, saying, “Pereira leaves an immense legacy” and celebrated what it called his “extreme dedication…to the indigenous peoples, for whom he worked tirelessly.”
Pereira, 41, previously clashed with Xavier, a former police chief appointed by Bolsonaro in July 2019. Pereira worked with Funai until the end of the year, when Xavier dismissed him. Pereira said he believed the decision was made because he led a successful operation against illegal mining on indigenous lands.
After leaving Funai, the father of three went to work with indigenous communities in the Javari Valley, a remote and densely forested region along Brazil’s western border with Peru. It was there, on a quiet stretch of the Itaquaí River, that he and Phillips were last seen alive.
Sunday’s strike call comes five days after union members at Funai’s headquarters in the capital, Brasilia, were joined by colleagues from two other states in a one-day lightning strike.
Colotetti said staff were threatened with dismissal if they continued the strike, but would not be intimidated.
“We are going to lose the money from the days we are away and there are also other threats, coming through secondary channels,” she said. “People in leadership positions are warned that they will be fired, and those here on secondment are warned that they will be fired. The directors are trying to put a stop to it.