Police in the Brazilian Amazon have found the bodies of two men in the area close to where British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira went missing 10 days ago.
At a press briefing late on Wednesday, regional police chief Eduardo Fontes said one of the two men arrested in connection with the pair’s disappearance had confessed to killing them.
“On Tuesday he informed us the location where the bodies were buried and he promised to go with us today to the site so we could confirm where the bodies were buried,” Fontes told reporters.
The announcement brought a sad end to a 10-day search which has horrified the nation and underlined the growing dangers faced by those who dare to defend Brazil’s environment and Indigenous communities, which have faced a historic assault under the country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.
The location identified by the suspect was 1hr 40min by boat from the river town of Atalaia do Norte and another 3.1km (1.9 miles) by foot into dense forest.
After a day-long operation, involving the army, navy and police force, the Guardian witnessed the bodies being removed from that area, known as the Lago do Preguiça, under the cover of darkness.
Escorted by army troops, they were carried by boat back down the River Itaquaí to Atalaia do Norte, where Phillips and Pereira had begun their final journey.
Scores of locals flocked to the town’s port to watch as officers in camouflage gear loaded the two black body bags on to the back of a federal police vehicle, which set off in a blaze of red and blue lights.
“We are now going to identify the human remains with the most dignity possible,” Fontes said. “When the remains are proved to be those of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, they will be delivered to the families.”
The news was greeted with relief by Phillips’ wife Alessandra Sampaio.
“Although we are still awaiting definitive confirmations, this tragic outcome puts an end to the anguish of not knowing Dom and Bruno’s whereabouts,” she wrote in a statement. “Now we can bring them home and say goodbye with love.
“Today, we also begin our quest for justice. I hope that the investigations exhaust all possibilities and bring definitive answers on all relevant details as soon as possible.”
Fontes said search teams planned to return to the site on Thursday to locate the men’s boat. The men were last seen travelling upriver and Fontes alleged the suspects tossed the boat’s engine in the river and then filled the vessel with sacks of earth so it would sink.
“We are still investigating,” he said, adding that more arrests were expected. “This was a significant advance.”
The press conference was held in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, where a series of military and police officials congratulated themselves for the work done, before belatedly recognising the role played by Indigenous people who helped lead the search.
In Atalaia do Norte, Eliseio Marubo, an Indigenous lawyer and close friend of Pereira said: “I feel an indescribable pain because I have lost a brother, I have lost part of my story.”
Tears rolling down his cheeks, Marubo sent a message to the families of the two men who had both sought to champion the Indigenous cause. “You are not alone,” he said. “We will march on together.”
Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41 went missing on 5 June, at the end of a four-day trip down the Itaquaí river in the far west of Brazil.
Pereira was accompanying Phillips on a reporting trip for a book about sustainable development in the Amazon but their boat did not arrive as scheduled at Atalaia do Norte, not far from Brazil’s border with Peru.
However, when Pereira’s friends raised the alarm, Brazilian authorities were slow to respond and it was the Indigenous communities that made the first unsettling discovery on Saturday when they found rucksacks, clothing and personal items belonging to the two men.
Police detained one man on Wednesday, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, but failed to link him conclusively with their disappearance. He has reportedly denied any involvement in the disappearances. Six days later they arrested his brother Oseney and charged him with “alleged aggravated murder”.
The investigation was dogged by setbacks, from the sluggish response of the army and navy search teams, to the heavily criticised actions of the Brazilian embassy in London, who told Phillips’ family in the UK that his body had been found, only to retract the statement later.
It also comes amid widespread criticism of Brazil’s policies on the environment and the estimated 235 Indigenous tribes living in Brazil.
Deforestation has soared under Bolsonaro, and government agencies devoted to protecting the environment and Indigenous communities have been undermined.
Pereira was a senior figure in the state Indigenous foundation charged with protecting Indigenous communities but was removed from office in late 2019 after he led an operation to destroy illegal mines operating on Indigenous land.
He later began working with Indigenous rights organisations in remote areas of the rainforest to help them map their territories and protect them from invasions by miners, loggers, and drug-traffickers active in the area.
Late on Wednesday, Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in a statement that Wednesday’s news had prompted “pain and indignation” and linked the crime to the dismantling of policies to protect Indigenous people.
“Democracy and Brazil can no longer tolerate violence, hatred and contempt for the values of civilisation,” he said. “Bruno and Dom will live in our memory – and in the hope of a better world”.
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( Information from theguardian.com was used in this report. To Read More, click here )