Brazil’s vice-president has claimed that British journalist Dom Phillips was “collateral damage” in an attack on his traveling partner, the Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira, as grayly details emerged about the killing of the two men in early June.
One of the three men in custody for the killings said he and his accomplices tried to burn the bodies after shooting them dead at the edge of a river in western Brazil.
When that did not work, they returned the next day and buried them, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira said in a police reconstruction video broadcast on TV Globo.
The bodies of the two men were found last Wednesday, after Amarildo led police to the spot where they were buried, 3.1km from the banks of the river.
Amarildo is one of three men in custody in connection with a crime that has shocked Brazil. His brother Oseney was also detained, along with Jefferson Lima da Silva. All three live in the Javari Valley, a remote part of Brazil close to the country’s border with Peru.
Another five people are wanted by authorities for participating in the hiding of the bodies.
Phillips and Pereira were returning from a trip in the region on 5 June when they went missing. Phillips was working on a book about sustainable development called How to Save the Amazon, and Pereira, who had close contacts with local Indigenous groups, was helping him with interviews.
Witnesses said Pereira had been threatened by the men the day before on the Itaquaí river. It is believed they were worried Pereira had evidence of their illegal fishing trips in the area, much of which is reserved exclusively for Indigenous tribes.
Amarildo said Phillips and Pereira were shot as they tried to escape their pursuers and Pereira fired back.
“There was an exchange of fire,” Amarildo said, claiming Jefferson shot both men.
The news came shortly after Brazil’s vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, said he believed Phillips perished because he was with Pereira, the killers’ main target.
“If someone ordered the crime, it’s a businessperson in the region who was feeling aggrieved, mainly by Bruno’s actions,” Mourão said on Monday. “Not Dom’s. Sun got caught up in this story. He was collateral damage.
“This is a crime, it was something that happened in a moment, almost like an ambush. Something that had been brewing for a time, so to speak. In my assessment, it must have happened on Sunday. On Sunday, Saturday, folks drink, they get drunk – the same happens here in the poorer areas, in the outskirts of the big cities.”
Mourão, vice-president to the far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, did not explain whether his conclusions were based on findings from the police inquiry of a crime that has shocked the world.
Mourão added that even in Brazil’s big cities, “every weekend people are struck and killed by knives, by gunshots, in the most cowardly of manners; and normally this is a result of what? Alcohol. So that’s what must have happened there.”
His comments angered the traditional communities where Bruno had worked for years. In a statement, the Univaja group of Indigenous people said Mourão’s comments were disrespectful to Phillips and the local communities.
“The vice-president disregards the fact that the police investigation points to the existence of a criminal group organized to plunder the natural resources of the Vale do Javari Indigenous land,” the statement said.
Although police have said the killers acted alone, Univaja believes more powerful interests are behind the crime. The area on Brazil’s border with Peru is beset with problems, with loggers, miners and hunters regularly invading Indigenous land. Drug traffickers are also known to operate in the area.
On Tuesday morning in Atalaia do Norte, the riverside town Phillips and Pereira had been due to arrive at, a group of Indigenous leaders held a memorial service for the two men.
Leaders from five different Indigenous groups delivered speeches and sang songs of tribute in front of a large picture of the two men and bouquets of tropical flowers.
“In this moment we cannot show our enemies our weakness. What happened to Bruno and Dom has to strengthen our fight,” said Univaja’s coordinator Paulo Marubo.
With reference to the 1988 Brazilian constitution, which enshrines the land rights of Indigenous people, he added:
“The constitution wasn’t written by Indigenous people, it was written by the white man. And we want the government to respect what they wrote.”
Mourão’s claims also come after similarly unpleasant comments by Bolsonaro, who first accused Pereira and Phillips of heading out on an “adventure that wasn’t to be recommended” and then later claimed, without evidence, that Phillips was unpopular in the region.
Phillips and Pereira were traveling in a boat on 5 June when they were reported missing after failing to appear at their destination in Atalaia do Norte, a small town close to Brazil’s border with Peru.
On Sunday night, police recovered the boat the pair were using when they disappeared. The white metal craft was found in waters 20 to 30 meters deep near the bank of the Itaquaí river, said the local police chief, Alex Perez Timóteo. It had been weighed down by six sacks of earth. Police also found its Yamaha engine.