Dom Phillips

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British freelance journalist Dominic “Dom” Phillips went missing on June 5, 2022, during a reporting trip in the Brazilian Amazon, and his remains were found with gunshot wounds on June 15, according to multiple news reports and Federal Police statements reviewed by CPJ. Phillips and Indigenous issues expert Bruno Pereira, who was traveling with him, were shot and killed the morning they went missing, according to the local outlet Agência Pública and reporting by The Guardian.

Phillips, 57, had reported for The Guardian, Financial Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and had covered illegal mining, deforestation, and human rights issues in the Amazon. According to news reports, Phillips and Pereira were traveling in the region to interview local residents, Indigenous groups, and people defending the Indigenous territory from illegal fishermen and other outsiders for a book that Phillips was writing.

Phillips and Pereira were traveling in the Javari Valley, near the Brazil-Peru border, and were due to arrive at the town of Atalaia do Norte, in Amazonas state, on the morning of June 5, according to multiple news reports and a joint statement from two Indigenous rights groups.

When they failed to arrive that morning, members of the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA) began a search, according to those sources. On June 7, UNIVAJA and the Observatory for Uncontacted and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI) said in a joint statement that authorities had not yet established a task force to search for the pair, and that very few personnel had been deployed to the area.

In a statement published on June 8, The Guardian called the government’s response “at best sluggish and underwhelming” and said “too much time has been lost already.”

Also on June 8, the First Federal Civil Court in Amazonas ordered the federal government to increase the personnel and vehicles, boats, and helicopters used in the search, according to multiple news reports. In a statement emailed to CPJ that day, the Ministry of Defense said that it had “immediately employed all means necessary for the searches.”

On June 15,  Amazonas state Federal Police chief Eduardo Fontes announced at a press conference in the state capital Manaus that human remains had been found earlier that day; on June 17, Brazilian Federal Police said a forensic analysis confirmed that those were Phillips’ remains.

The Federal Police said that Phillips was shot once in the chest and Pereira was shot three times, and the ammunition used was “typical of hunting with multiple pellets.”

On June 19, the search teams found the boat Phillips and Pereira used near the bank of the Itaquaí River, according to several news reports and a police statement.

The day before Phillips and Pereira went missing, a group of fishermen working illegally in the area threatened them and members of UNIVAJA while they were traveling together, according to news reports, which said the men pulled their boat nearby and brandished guns at them.

Amazonas police arrested a man identified as Amarildo da Costa Oliveira, known as “Pelado,” on June 7 for illegal possession of drugs and ammunition, and on June 9 the Amazonas state court ordered his preventive arrest as a suspect of participating in Phillips and Pereira’s disappearance, according to news reports.

An activist with UNIVAJA identified that suspect as the same man who had previously fired at UNIVAJA patrol boats, according to news reports.

According to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, Amazonas state military police officers allege that Amarildo da Costa Oliveira and four other men followed Phillips and Pereira after they left the São Rafael community early in the morning on June 5, and a witness said she saw da Costa Oliveira loading a shotgun and packing up ammunition that morning.

On June 14, the police arrested Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, the suspect’s brother, for his alleged involvement in the disappearance, according to news reports and a police statement.

During his June 15 press conference, Fontes said that Amarildo da Costa Oliveira had confessed the previous night to killing Phillips and Pereira and sinking their boat, and he then led search teams to the site where their remains were found.

According to Agência Pública, Amarildo da Costa Oliveira alleged that Amazonas state military police abused him during his arrest; CPJ emailed that police department for comment on that allegation, but did not receive any reply.

On June 18, Jefferson da Silva Lima, a third suspect, turned himself in to Amazonas state police in Atalaia do Norte, according to news reports and a police statement. The police statements did not specify how he and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira were alleged to have participated in the killing.

In response to an email from CPJ, the Atalaia do Norte public defender’s office confirmed that it represented the three suspects during the custody hearings and did not offer any other information on their case or specify how they intended to plead.

In a June 18 statement, the Federal Police said five other people had been identified for allegedly helping to hide Phillips and Pereira’s bodies.

In a statement issued on June 17, the Federal Police said investigations indicated that the killers acted alone and there was no mastermind or criminal organization behind the killing, according to news reports and the police statement. However, on June 23, Amazonas Federal Police Chief Eduardo Fontes said in an interview that “it is possible there is a mastermind.”

UNIVAJA issued a statement accusing the police of disregarding information provided by the group in 2021 that would “indicate the existence of an organized criminal group” in the Javari Valley. The statement alleged that “an organized group [had] planned the crime in detail.”

On July 7, the case was transferred to a federal court, as the crime related to the protection of Indigenous people, which would place it under federal jurisdiction, according to news reports.

On July 22, the federal prosecutor’s office released a statement saying they had charged the Oliveira brothers and da Silva Lima with murdering Phillips and Pereira. 

On August 5, the Federal Police arrested five other people suspected of participating in the killings, according to news reports and a Federal Police statement, which CPJ reviewed. The statement did not provide details about the suspects or their alleged role in the murder.

On June 4, 2023, TV Globo’s Fantástico program reported that Brazilian police had charged two others suspects in the killings, Colombian national Rubén Villar and local fisherman Jânio Freitas de Souza.

Police accused Villar, who allegedly ran an illegal fishing operation in the Javari Valley, of being the “mastermind” behind the killings, that report said. In July 2022, authorities recorded Villar, who was in prison at the time on charges of giving false evidence to police, allegedly saying that he had supplied ammunition to kill Pereira and Phillips.

Police allege that Villar’s illegal fishing group was monitoring Pereira’s activities, and that Souza called Villar to alert him about Phillips and Periera’s presence in São Rafael the day they disappeared, the BBC reported. Both were in custody as of June 2023, according to that report, which said that Villar denied any connection to the killing.

In August 2023, authorities and the victims’ families requested that the Oliveira brothers and da Silva Lima face a jury trial.

OPI Executive Coordinator Fabio Ribeiro told CPJ via messaging app that the Javari Valley is “the second largest indigenous territory in Brazil and where there are records of logging, clandestine fishing, illegal mining.”

He said the situation “has worsened in the past years, especially with the dismantling of public policies for the protection of indigenous people.”

“I hope that the investigations exhaust all possibilities and bring definitive answers on all relevant details as soon as possible,” Alessandra Sampaio, Phillips’ wife, said in a statement sent to CPJ. “We will only have peace when the necessary measures are taken so that tragedies like this never happen again.”

In 2020, according to a report from environmental organization Global Witness, 20 environmental activists were killed in Brazil, and nearly three quarters of recorded attacks took place in the Amazon region.