DOM PHILLIPS WANTED TO ‘SAVE THE AMAZON’ — HE WAS KILLED FOR INVESTIGATING ILLEGAL FISHING
On June 5, 2022, British journalist Dom Phillips and his guide and friend Bruno Pereira disappeared in Brazil’s Javari Valley. Their bodies were found 10 days later after the prime suspects, illegal fishermen, confessed to the crime. For a year, Forbidden Stories and its partners investigated this industry, which threatens the Amazon’s resources and the survival of the indigenous populations that Pereira defended. In an unprecedented investigation, the consortium is unveiling the organized crime activity behind their murders and its possible links to drug-trafficking.
Additional reporting: Mariana Abreu (Forbidden Stories), Sônia Bridi (TV Globo/Globoplay), Eduardo Goulart (OCCRP), Eduardo Nunomura (Amazônia Real), Rodrigo Pedroso (Ojo Público), Tom Phillips (The Guardian).
In the photo, Dom Phillips is wearing khaki pants, flip-flops and a hat. He is turned towards the other man in the photo, who is listening attentively. The two men are seated on wooden planks on the banks of the Itaquai River in the Amazon’s Javari Valley. In the background, half a dozen wooden boats are tied to the shore.
The man smiling at Phillips in the photo goes by “Caboco,” or sometimes “Caboclo.” He is known by indigenous people in the region for illegally fishing on their territory. Phillips spent the months before his death working on a book, titled “How to Save the Amazon,” about threats to the tropical rainforest. His interest in illegal fishing led to this trip.
But Philips never had the chance to publish the book. Two days after this photo was taken, on June 5, 2022, the journalist and his guide, Bruno Pereira, were killed on the Itaquai River by illegal fishermen, members of the same group as “Caboco.”
This photo, one of the last taken of Phillips, was almost buried in the heart of the Amazon forever. Almost four months after the two men were murdered, Pereira’s colleagues—members of an indigenous patrol within the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja)—discovered one of Pereira’s phones under a pile of mud and sticks. On it was this photo.
At the time of the discovery, the team was accompanied by journalist and member of the Forbidden Stories consortium, Sônia Bridi, who was making a documentary for Globoplay.
“His colleagues went back [to the crime scene] with a metal detector to find more evidence,” Bridi told Forbidden Stories. “They found Dom’s glasses, his notebook—[which is] all wet, we can’t read anything—his press card.”
The team turned everything over to the federal police, Bridi added. This discovery contained crucial elements that helped reconstruct the last moments of the two men’s lives and confirmed the sequence of events determined by police investigators.
It took months of work to simply power on the phone and extract its data. Accessing the photos was unexpected.
“The phone spent months in the water before the river levels went down,” Bridi said.
These final photos were entrusted to the 16 media organizations who make up the “Bruno and Dom Project,” led by Forbidden Stories, which pursues the work of Pereira and Phillips on the destruction of the Amazon. Over the past year, this group of more than 50 journalists has investigated land grabbing, ranching’s ties to deforestation, mining and illegal fishing—an investigation that ultimately cost these two defenders of the Amazon their lives.
Phillips, 57, lived in Brazil for fifteen years. He started as a music journalist but became interested in the environment and reported on subjects including deforestation and its links to illegal gold mining and large-scale livestock farming.
“He had so many friends and new friends. I don’t even know how he found time for me,” his widow, Alessandra Sampaio, told Forbidden Stories.
Pereira, 41, a father of three, was a leading expert on Brazilian indigenous peoples, committed to preserving their way of life.
“He gave his body and soul to his work,” Armando Soares, one of his former colleagues, said. “His absence is felt so much today in Brazil and in the indigenous community.”
The two men met in the Javari Valley in 2018. Pereira, who knew the area better than almost anyone, had previously guided another journalist. At the time, he was working as the general coordinator of recently contacted and isolated indigenous people for the government agency, National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (Funai). This region of Brazil, larger than Austria and close to the borders of Peru and Colombia, is home to the greatest concentration of known indigenous peoples in the country.
Phillips described Pereira in an article for the Guardian, “Lost Tribes: the 1,000km rainforest mission to protect an Amazon village.”
“Wearing just shorts and flip-flop as he squats in the mud by a fire, Bruno Pereira, an official at Brazil’s government indigenous agency, cracks open the boiled skull of a monkey with a spoon and eats its brains for breakfast as he discusses policy,” he wrote.
Further down in the article, Phillips details the dangers for isolated groups, who have no contact with the outside world. They are “more threatened than they have been in decades—with heavily polluting gold mining barges entering rivers to its east, cattle ranchers encroaching on its southern borders, and commercial fishing gangs venturing deep into its centre. Keeping tabs on their wellbeing is vital.”
Phillips was dedicated to “saving the Amazon” and the people who live there. The article detailed his 1,000-kilometer expedition across the Javari Valley reserve with its “dense, hilly forests and sinuous rivers.”
Four years later, Phillips and Pereira were killed on one of these sinuous rivers, the Itaquai.
“Dom was really excited about this [first] journey. He thought it was very important and that it would be a profound experience for him. And that comes across very strongly in the story that he wrote when he came back,” Jonathan Watts, friend and fellow Guardian journalist, told Forbidden Stories. Dom was “a great human being, a really terrific human being who wanted society to be better, believed that journalism was a way of making society and the environment better,” he said.
Bolsonaro and his supporters against the Amazon
When he decided to return to the Javari Valley in 2022, Phillips asked Pereira to accompany him. The two had stayed in regular touch, speaking weekly since their last meeting. But since that first visit, the political situation in Brazil had changed dramatically with the arrival of far-right President Jair Bolosonaro in January 2019.
When Phillips asked Bolsonaro in a now viral video what he planned to do to stop deforestation, the president attacked the journalist.
“You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours,” Bolsonaro responded.
By 2022, Pereira had left Funai, which was by then headed by someone close to the agri-food lobby, and joined Univaja, an aboriginal organization that defends the rights of the region’s people. Pereira created a surveillance team, the EVU, tasked with collecting evidence of environmental and other violations.
Pereira and his team at Univaja repeatedly shared evidence with authorities, including police officers and ministry officials from Funai that documented intrusions on indigenous land, particularly illegal fishing. Univaja never received any response from these institutions.
It was members of the EVU who found Pereira’s phone after his murder.
“Every time he left on a reporting trip, he shared his schedule with me. That time, he told me, ‘I’m going to meet with fishermen. What they’re doing is illegal, but it’s OK to go talk to them,’” Sampaio, Phillips’ partner, said.
In this region, one particular fish, the pirarucu, is highly sought after. The pirarucu can weigh up to 200 kilos and is up to three meters in length. It is the largest fish in South America and found in cuisines in Lima, São Paulo and Bogota, where locals appreciate its tender and flavorful flesh—similar to pollock.
But in Brazil, fishing for pirarucu is highly regulated. The species almost disappeared due to overfishing, so the country’s federal environmental authority, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), established strict rules in 2004. Fishing for pirarucu is only authorized during certain months of the year. While researching his book, Phillips went to a reserve dedicated to sustainable fishing practices for the pirarucu in 2021.
There are even stricter regulations on indigenous territory in the Javari Valley. In this zone, fishing for any species of fish is strictly forbidden, as it is indigenous land. The Brazilian constitution guarantees indigenous peoples’ rights to demarcation, which is the government’s process for the formal recognition and naming of indigenous lands. This includes recognition of indigenous rights, self-determination and autonomous governments.
“The ‘demarcated’ land belongs exclusively to the indigenous people. If you remove a stone in this area, you are committing a constitutional crime,” Soares, Pereira’s former colleague, told Forbidden Stories.
“It is also illegal to enter these territories without authorization, and there are strict protocols to follow. Illegal fishermen are committing multiple crimes: they are entering indigenous land without permission and they are removing resources,” he added.
When Phillips and Pereira began to investigate fishing, they disrupted business operations, which were growing more organized.
“It’s because of this that Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were killed,” Soares said.
“Bruno was seen as an obstacle to the traffickers and his environmental protections as a barrier,” Eliesio Marubo, Univaja’s lawyer, said.
According to a December 2021 report by indigenous organizations and the NGO Rainforest Foundation Norway, lakes on indigenous land in the Javari Valley are “coveted” for pirarucu, “the most lucrative fish in the region.”
Pereira regularly received threats and had taken to patrolling while armed. He watched as violence crept into the region. In September 2019, three years before Phillips and Pereira’s deaths, Funai employee Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was killed in Tabatinga, not far from the Javari Valley, likely in retaliation for seizing meat, fish, and illegal hunting and fishing products.
Mentored by Pereira at Funai, Pereira dos Santos also patrolled the waters of the Javari Valley These were dangerous expeditions.
“He said it was a job for brave men,” his mother, Noemia Pereira dos Santos, told the Guardian.
The stalled investigation into Pereira dos Santos’ death was revived following the investigations into the murder of Pereira and Phillips.
From November 2018 to November 2019, eight gunshot attacks were recorded at the Itui-Itaqua environmental protection base, the checkpoint for entering indigenous land—an unprecedented number. Funai authorities attributed the attacks to illegal hunters and fishermen. Univaja’s reports name a potential suspect, an illegal fisherman named “Pelado.”
“‘Pelado’ was named as one of the perpetrators of several gun attacks on the Funai protection base between 2018 and 2019,” according to two letters from April 2022, two months before the murders. “Pelado,” whose real name is Amarildo Costa de Oliveira, is described as the “head of the team,” who led nighttime invasions into indigenous territory to illegally fish, particularly for pirarucu.
His relatives, interviewed by The Guardian, described a young man who played soccer as a teenager by the river. In 2002, at the age of 21, he joined a historic expedition in the Javari Valley in search of an uncontacted indigenous group and was excited to share these stories with his children. But over the years, “Pelado” started organizing weeks-long illegal fishing expeditions into indigenous lands. His crew consisted of half a dozen armed men, hauling tons of pirarucu and a river turtle called tracajá onto wooden boats.
“‘Pelado’ wanted to be the boss. He wanted to rule over that area,” his uncle, Raimundo Bento da Costa, told the Guardian.
“Pelado” threatened Pereira on multiple occasions. And in June 2022, “Pelado” and Phillips crossed paths.
Double murder on the Itaquai River
The Javari River, which acts as a natural border between Brazil, Peru and Colombia, joins the Itaquai River at Atalaia do Norte, the entry point to the Javari reserve.
It was for this second river—Itaquai—that Pereira and Phillips left the village of Atalaia do Norte on June 2, 2022. According to the indictment, obtained by Forbidden Stories, the two men were aboard a Univaja patrol boat on June 4 when they came across the boat belonging to “Pelado.” The patrol team tried to prevent him from entering indigenous land.
“Pelado” and the boat’s two other passengers raised their guns threateningly. The same day, the fisherman visited his uncle, who was lodging Phillips and Pereira at his home. “Pelado” greeted Pereira but heard him ask Phillips to “take his photo,” which was perceived as a threat.
At 6 a.m. the following day, Phillips and Pereira headed back towards Atalaia do Norte. They made a short stop at São Rafael, where Pereira was supposed to meet a local leader who did not show up. The two men decided to get back on the Itaquai River.
At 7 a.m., according to the indictment, “Pelado” spotted their boat and saw them taking pictures of his vessel, which Pereira called the “invader’s boat.” “Pelado” called in another fisherman, Jefferson da Silva Lima, known as “Pelado da Dinha” for backup. Together, they caught up to Phillips and Pereira.
Their accounts of events then differ, but according to the police report, “Pelado” and “Pelado da Dinha” fired on the two men multiple times, hitting their targets, while Pereira fired several shots in return. They threw Phillips and Pereira’s bodies in the water and later returned to burn and dismember the bodies.
Lawyers for the three fishermen, Dr. Goreth Campos Rubim, Lucas Sá and Dr. Américo Leal denied this version of events. Dr. Leal is known in Brazil for defending the murderer of Dorothy Stang, a nun and defender of the Amazon, who was killed in 2005. The lawyer suggested that Stang was responsible for her own death because of “the violence she propagated.”
According to their lawyers, “Pelado” was defending himself against Pereira, who they say fired first. “Pelado” repeated the same defense in front of a judge during hearings, saying that he regretted his actions.
It took 10 days to find the two missing bodies, as then-president Bolsonaro blamed the victims, suggesting that the two men “were on an adventure that is not recommended.” Ultimately, the fishermen’s confessions led investigators to the remains.
Their lawyers claimed that these confessions were obtained “under torture,” without detailing which police force was responsible for such treatment. They also broadly rejected the presented case facts, claiming that the conflict between the indigenous people and fishermen was “fabricated.”
“The state of Amazonas [where the Javari Valley is located] has about 40,000 kilometers of navigable rivers,” Leal said. “And now, someone comes along and forbids fishermen to fish in certain places, while they feed everyone.”
But according to investigators, there was no doubt that Pereira was targeted by the fishermen and Phillips was killed in order to leave no “witnesses to the crime.”
Sampaio, the reporter’s widow, refused to see her husband as a “collateral victim.”
“He was there; he knew the risks. He took photos of the fishermen. That’s why they killed him.”
Fishermen that a member of the Forbidden Stories consortium met on the ground (see sidebar) shared their difficulties fishing in an overexploited area that is increasingly regulated, leading to illegal entries into indigenous territories. Inspections at the borders with Peru and Colombia are almost non-existent, allowing illegally caught fish to become legal with a simple declaration. They are impossible to trace.
“The region is inhabited by dignified local people who, in their search for subsistence, practice fishing activities [tolerated on the outskirts of the indigenous zone, editor’s note]. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the Javari Valley is the site of large-scale illegal fishing, financed by wealthy and heavily armed criminal associations,” notes a November 2022 report from the commission in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies tasked with continuing the investigation into Phillips and Pereira’s murders. The committee’s members said “with certainty that illegal fishing in the Javari Valley region is not carried out by local residents in search of subsistence, but by larger organizations, with exorbitant investments and profits, incompatible with the financial capacity” of local residents.
The commission pointed to the magnitude of fishing seizures by the police as evidence. For example, the police seized four tons of pirarucu in the Tabatinga region and 10 tons in Manaus, according to data presented to parliament members by the federal police in July 2022. The dates of the seizures were not given.
“Amarildo [‘Pelado’s’ real name], who carried out these cruel murders, was arrested with a ton of pirarucu caught illegally,” the report added. “A ton of fish is not the product of artisanal fishing, let alone subsistence fishing.”
Investigating the financing of illegal fishing operations in the Javari Valley led back to one man, known as “Colombia.” Brazilian authorities believe “Colombia” ordered the killing of Phillips and Pereira. According to the police, “Colombia” supplied arms to the murderers, telephoned “Pelado” before the crime and paid for his previous lawyer. “Colombia,” currently in custody, denied all involvement in the crime and said he only interacted with “Pelado” for “business affairs.” His lawyer did not respond to our interview requests.
Testimony from a parliamentary commission report named “Colombia” as the man “who ordered the murder of Maxciel,” the Funai employee killed in Tabatinga three years before Pereira and Phillips. A source close to the case confirmed this.
Three months before the murders of the two men, a March 2022 report by Univaja described “Colombia” as the “biggest buyer [of fish] and the current sponsor of the invasions into indigenous territory in Javari Valley.”
His real identity could be Ruben Dario da Silva Villar. Authorities consider him to be “the leader and financial supporter of an armed criminal group operating illegal fishing in the region.”
Supplemental material from the prosecutors in charge of the murder investigation, consulted by Forbidden Stories, also outlined similar connections. The document confirmed that there is “organized crime” led by “Colombia” in Javari Valley. “Pelado” acts as a “regional boss” for Atalaia do Norte. Several other names from the supplemental material appeared in Univaja’s denunciations, including “Caboco,” the fisherman in the photo with Phillips two days before his murder. According to the Brazilian judicial system, “Caboco” may have been working under “Pelado.” He was arrested for possible connections to the murder but was released in December 2022 due to lack of evidence.
“There is no doubt that the murders of Bruno and Dom are part of a much larger criminal system,” the parliament commission’s report stated. “There are clearly groups that not only finance illegal fishing but also use it to launder money and traffic drugs.”
This link to drug trafficking could help explain “Colombia’s” mysterious identity, as he is suspected to be connected to organized crime. The Javari Valley is close to popular drug trafficking routes. Colombia and Peru are two of the biggest cocaine producers worldwide, and Brazil is the second largest consumer after the United States.
There is currently only one official document linking “Colombia” to drug trafficking: an Ibama inspection report from October 2022, obtained by Forbidden Stories.
According to the document, “drug lords finance illegal activities (hunting, fishing, mining, and logging) by providing engines, gasoline, and equipment, as well as providing security for those engaged in these activities.”
“A man known as ‘Colombia’ might control the sale of illegal fish and drug trafficking [around São Gabriel],” the report added.
A link between illegal fishing and drug trafficking cannot be established without the police investigation into “Colombia,” which is currently on the prosecutor’s desk. The alleged sponsor of the murders of Phillips and Pereira will not be tried at the same time as the three fishermen who have already been indicted: “Pelado,” Amarildo da Costa Oliveira; “Pelado da Dinha,” Jefferson da Silva Lima; and “Dos Santos,” Oseney da Costa Oliveira.
A judge heard their cases and will now decide whether there will be a trial with a public jury, which would likely occur next year.
Separately, the former president of Funai was charged with aggravated homicide and concealment of a body in the murder investigation for Phillips and Pereira. Following dos Santos’ murder, Funai staff requested more protection, but the former president did not take any action, which allowed crime to flourish in the region, according to the federal police. This led to the killing of Phillips and Pereira.
“I want justice,” Sampaio said. “But not for myself: for the protection of the Javari Valley and the Amazon.”