Two men arrested for the murder of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira did not act on orders from above, the Brazilian police said on Friday, in an attempt to play down concerns their killing was carried out at the behest of an organized crime group.
Their bodies were found on Wednesday after an 11-day search along the banks of the Itaquaí river. They had been buried by the killers in a densely forested area two hours from the nearest town.
“The investigations indicate that the killers acted alone, without any author or criminal organization behind them,” Brazil’s federal police in the Amazon region said in a statement.
Officials also said there were “indications that other people participated in the crime” and that more arrests were possible.
The statement was greeted with skepticism by Univaja, the Indigenous group with whom Pereira worked and whose contribution was vital to search efforts over the past week and a half.
The group has sent numerous reports to the police in recent months detailing the presence of criminal gangs active in the area, some of whom, it alleged, were connected to the two suspects in custody.
The “cruelty used in the practice of the crime shows that Pereira and Phillips got in the way of a powerful criminal organization that sought at all costs to cover its tracks during the investigation,” Univaja said in a statement.
“This context shows that it is not just two executioners, but an organized group that planned every detail of this crime.”
Police detained two brothers, Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, in connection with the crime and one of the suspects led police to where Phillips and Pereira’s bodies were buried on Wednesday. The two bodies were taken to the capital Brasília on Thursday for autopsies and forensic exams.
The two suspects were reported to be involved in the illegal fishing business, which is a huge source of income for those who can catch turtles and fish such as the pirarucu, one of the world’s biggest freshwater fish.
The area is also where illegal loggers and miners are encroaching into the forest and threatening reservations set up for remote Indigenous tribes. Coca and cocaine is also trafficked across the border with Peru, leading some officials to speculate criminal gangs were involved in the killings.
“Crime blossoms where there is the perception that no one is looking and you have that there,” said Alexandre Saraiva, a former police chief in the region. “Whether it’s drugs, illegal fishing, logging, these groups work together.”
Phillips and Pereira were in the far west of the Brazilian Amazon to visit Indigenous communities close to Brazil’s border with Peru.
Phillips was writing a book about sustainable development in the Amazon and their boat was intercepted by the killers as they returned to the town of Atalaia do Norte at the end of a four-day trip.