Brazilian police arrested five more people on Saturday in connection with the murders of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous activist Bruno Pereira, and said one of the suspects already in custody was likely a mafia boss from illegal fishing based in the Amazon region.
Although they gave few details, police said three of those detained in operations near Brazil’s borders with Peru and Colombia were wanted for helping bury the bodies of Phillips and Pereira.
All three are linked to Amarildo da Costa Oliveira, one of three men charged last month with the double murder in a case that has shocked the world and highlighted growing insecurity in the densely forested region.
Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41, disappeared in the Javari Valley in western Brazil on June 5 at the end of a trip Phillips had organized to report a book on sustainability. Phillips had written for the Observer and the Guardian as well as other publications.
Pereira, a former official of Brazil’s national indigenous agency, knew the area well and was helping the Briton with his research.
The men were ambushed early one morning as they traveled down the Itaquaí River on their boat. Police believe their assailants shot them 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 photographs and evidence that they were fishing in areas off limits for endangered species, including turtles and pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world.
A single pirarucu can fetch up to $1,000 in markets in Brazil and Colombia and police believe criminal mafias are teaming up with impoverished local fishermen to hunt the animals, often in indigenous reserves where access to foreigners is prohibited.
They arrested a man last month for using fake IDs and said on Saturday they had identified him as Ruben Dario da Silva Villar, aka “Colômbia”.
The police “found strong indications that Colombia is the leader and financier of an armed criminal association dedicated to the practice of illegal fishing in the Javari Valley [and] responsible for the sale and export of a large amount of fish,” federal police said in a statement.
According to local reports, da Silva Villar supplied the local fisherman with boats, motors and bait.
Indigenous activists in the region greeted the news “with great joy” and said it marked “the beginning of justice”.
A lawyer for the indigenous organization Univaja said the arrests, and in particular that of Colômbia, confirmed their initial thesis – that the killings were not perpetrated by individuals working alone, but with the collaboration or the orders of a local mafia.
“A criminal organization has been working 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 were brutally murdered.
“It reinforces the need for the state to participate in an area that has been abandoned by the state,” he added.
The investigation is continuing.