Some of the last images of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira have been found after Indigenous activists recovered a mobile phone Pereira was carrying when the two men were killed in the Brazilian Amazon last year.
The phone was found last October when activists from Univaja, the Indigenous association where Pereira worked, returned to a stretch of flooded forest along the Itaquaí River where the men’s bodies were taken after they were shot dead on their boat on the morning of 5 June 2022.
What is the Bruno and Dom project?
Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian Indigenous expert and Dom Phillips, a British journalist and longtime Guardian contributor, were killed on the Amazon’s Itaquaí River last June while returning from a reporting trip to the remote Javari Valley region.
The attack prompted international outcry, and cast a spotlight on the growing threat to the Amazon posed by extractive industries, both legal and illegal, such as logging, poaching, mining and cattle ranching.
A year after their deaths, the Guardian has joined 15 other international news organisations in a collaborative investigation into organised crime and resource extraction in the Brazilian Amazon. The initiative has been coordinated by Forbidden Stories, the Paris-based non-profit whose mission is to continue the work of reporters who are threatened, censored or killed.
The goal of the project is to honour and pursue the work of Bruno and Dom, to foreground the importance of the Amazon and its people, and to suggest possible ways to save the Amazon.
Who was Bruno Pereira?
Pereira, 41, was a former employee of the Indigenous agency Funai where he led efforts to protect the isolated and uncontacted tribes who live in the Brazilian Amazon. After being sidelined from his post soon after the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro came to power, Pereira went to work with the Javari Valley Indigenous association Univaja, helping create Indigenous patrol teams to stop illegal poachers, miners and loggers invading their protected lands.
Who was Dom Phillips?
Phillips, 57, was a longtime contributor to the Guardian who had
lived in Brazil for 15 years. A former editor of the dance magazine Mixmag, he developed a deep interest in environmental issues, covering the link between logging, mining, the beef industry and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. His reporting brought him into contact with Pereira, and in 2018 the pair took part in a 17-day expedition deep into the Javari Valley. In 2021 he took a year off to start writing a book, titled How to Save the Amazon. His return to the Javari was to have been the last reporting trip for the project.
What is the Javari Valley?
Sitting on Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia, the Javari Valley
Indigenous Reservation is a Portugal-sized swathe of rainforest and
rivers which is home to about 6,000 Indigenous people from the Kanamari, Kulina, Korubo, Marubo, Matis, Mayoruna and Tsohom-dyapa groups, as well as 16 isolated groups.
It is also a hotspot for poachers, fishers and illegal loggers,
prompting violent conflicts between the Indigenous inhabitants and the
riverside communities which fiercely opposed the reservation’s
creation in 2001. Its strategic location makes it a key route for smuggling cocaine between Peru, Colombia and Brazil.
What happened to Pereira and Philips?
On 2 June 2022, Pereira and Phillips travelled up the Itaquaí River from the town of Atalaia do Norte to report on efforts to stop illegal fishing. Two days later, members of the Indigenous patrol team with whom Pereira and Phillips were travelling were threatened by an illegal fisher. Early on 5 June, the pair set out on the return leg before dawn, hoping to safely pass a river community that was home to several known poachers.
They never arrived, and after a search by teams of local Indigenous activists, their remains were discovered on 15 June.
Three fishers are being held in high-security prisons awaiting trial for the killings: brothers Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and a third man, Jefferson da Silva Lima.
Federal police have alleged that a fourth man, nicknamed Colombia, was the mastermind of the killings.
With the help of a metal detector, the group found several items belonging to the victims, including Phillips’s UK press card, two spiral notebooks the journalist and longtime Guardian contributor had taken on the four-day reporting trip into the Javari valley region, and one of two phones Pereira was carrying.
Indigenous activists and police found other items belonging to the men in the same location during last year’s 10-day search for their bodies.
After months underwater, Phillips’s notebooks were illegible. But federal police forensic teams were able to recover several images from the handset, according to the Brazilian broadcaster Globoplay, which was with the Indigenous activists when they made the discovery.
They include one photograph, taken on the afternoon of Friday 3 June, that shows the British journalist chatting to a local man in Ladário, the riverside village where one of his alleged killers, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, grew up. The man Phillips is talking to is Oliveira’s brother-in-law, Laurindo Alves.
Another photograph, taken shortly after 7am on Sunday 5 June, shows Phillips sitting in a boat near São Rafael, another fishing village on the Itaquaí. Minutes later, after casting off from that community, Phillips and Pereira came under attack.
Da Costa de Oliveira and another local fisher, Jefferson da Silva Lima, last year confessed to the crime, telling police they were moved by anger over Pereira’s “persecution” of fishers the activist accused of illegal poaching in Indigenous lands. However, when they appeared before a federal judge earlier this month the two men offered a dramatically different version, claiming Pereira had attacked them and they had shot back in self-defence. The victims’ families and friends dismissed those claims as having no basis in reality.
The recovered phone also contained two short videos which appear to support descriptions of the events in the days leading up to last year’s killings.
Those videos, shot at just before 8am on 4 June 2022, show Oliveira travelling down the Itaquaí River past the shack where Phillips and Pereira were staying in a riverside community called Lago do Jaburu, just a few hundred metres from the entrance to the Javari valley Indigenous territory.
Earlier that morning, members of EVU, the Indigenous patrol team Pereira helped create, spotted Oliveira travelling in the other direction, towards the protection base at the entrance to the Indigenous enclave. Indigenous patrollers say Oliveira threatened them by raising his gun into the air when he was challenged.
The owner of the house where Phillips and Pereira were staying, a local fisher called Raimundo Bento da Costa, remembered the British journalist photographing Oliveira at the Indigenous expert’s request as he returned along the Itaquaí.
“Bruno told [Dom] to take a photo and he took one … and showed it to us afterwards. [Oliveira] had loads of cartridges, red ones, [on his belt],” said Costa, who is Oliveira’s uncle.
Twenty-four hours after those images were taken, according to their confessions, Oliveira and Jefferson da Silva Lima ambushed and killed Phillips and Pereira as they came down the same river on their way to the town of Atalaia do Norte.
The phone also contained a selfie Pereira had taken during another mission in the Javari valley in May last year, as well as two aerial videos from a flyover during which illegal mining dredges were spotted along the region’s Jaquirana River.