RSF denounces Brazil’s disastrous handling of search for Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira

On 15 June, a detained suspect reportedly confessed to burying British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous communities activist Bruno Pereira, and human remains were found at the search site. Since the announcement of their disappearance, the government's action has been calamitous and its communication chaotic.

Ten days after the disappearance of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, on 15 June, a suspect has confessed to burying the bodies of the two men. According to the head of the federal police in Brazil's Amazonas state, one of the two local fishermen detained by the police – Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, aka “Pelado” and his brother Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, aka “Dos Santos,” – had confessing to burying the bodies. The police set off for the alleged crime scene and found "human remains" which are subject to expertise.

On the same day, President Jair Bolsonaro said: "This Englishman was disliked in the region, because he wrote a lot of articles against illegal gold miners, environmental issues (...) A lot of people didn't like him in that very isolated region. He should have taken a lot more precautions.”

Ever since the two men were reported missing, President Bolsonaro has been making comments that have made no constructive contribution to the search or to advancing a belated and slow investigation, and have added to the general confusion surrounding the case.

On 13 June, Bolsonaro said: “Everything indicates that something bad was done to them, because human entrails were found floating in the river and have been sent to Brasilia for DNA testing,” This statement was never confirmed by the federal police.

Members of the British journalist’s family told TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest TV news channel, and other media outlets on 13 June that the Brazilian embassy in London had told them that two bodies had been found and were in the process of being identified, but were definitely Dom and Bruno. This was subsequently denied by the federal police. 

The Phillips family issued a statement the next day, 14 June, deploring the confusion, which it said had complicated an already distressing situation. The family received a public apology from the Brazilian government.

“The efforts undertaken by the government to find Dom and Bruno have been extremely slow and totally inadequate, and President Bolsonaro’s attempts to vilify the victims are unacceptable and must stop,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau. “More than 10 days after their disappearance, the action taken by the authorities in charge of the search and the information they have been providing continue to be chaotic and disorganised. The national authorities must carry out a prompt, impartial and independent investigation into this tragic affair.”

Phillips and Pereira went missing on 5 June in the far west of Brazil’s Amazonas state, in a remote region near the Peruvian border, A freelance journalist based in the Brazilian city of Salvador, Phillips worked for international media outlets including The Guardian, Financial Times, Washington Post, New York Times and The Intercept, specialising in environmental issues. Most of his latest stories for The Guardian were about cattle ranching, mining and soya farming in protected Amazonian forest regions.

He had gone to the Javari Valley in Amazonas state with Pereira to conduct interviews in preparation for a book on these issues. Pereira had often been threatened in connection with his defence of Brazil’s indigenous communities and was threatened again just a few days before his disappearance.

Illegal miners, fishermen and poachers, cattle ranchers and farmers, and arms and cocaine traffickers all have a relatively free hand in this region, which has been abandoned by the authorities, and they pose a constant threat to the 26 indigenous peoples, 19 of whom have little or no contact with the outside world, that have sought refuge there.

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