Police in the Brazilian Amazon have found the bodies of two men in the area near where British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous activist Bruno Pereira went missing ten days ago.
At a news conference late Wednesday, regional police chief Eduardo Fontes said one of the two men arrested in connection with the couple’s disappearance had confessed to killing her.
“On Tuesday he gave us the location where the bodies were buried and he promised to go with us to the location today so we can confirm where the bodies were buried,” Fontes told reporters.
“Based on the confession, there’s a strong chance they are, but only (forensic) expertise can prove that,” he added.
The location identified by the suspect was an hour and 40 minutes starting from the town of Atalaia do Norte and a further 3.1km walk into a dense forest.
The operation involved members of the army, navy and police, as well as satellite imagery, drones and sniffer dogs.
“We will now identify the human remains with the utmost dignity,” Fontes said. “If the remains are found to be those of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, they will be returned to the families.”
The news was greeted with relief by Phillips’ wife, Alessandra Sampaio.
“While we are still awaiting definitive confirmations, this tragic result ends the fear of not knowing Dom and Bruno’s whereabouts,” she wrote in a statement. “Now we can take her home and say goodbye in love.”
“Today we also begin our search for justice. I hope the investigation will exhaust all avenues and bring definitive answers on all relevant details as soon as possible.”
Fontes said search teams plan to return to the site Thursday to locate the men’s boat. The men were last seen sailing upstream towards Atalaia do Norte, and Fontes claimed the suspects dumped the engine in the river and then filled the boat with sacks of earth so it would sink.
“We’re still investigating,” he said, adding that new arrests are expected. “That was significant progress.”
Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41, went missing on June 5 at the end of a four-day trip down the Itaquaí River in far western Brazil.
Pereira accompanied Phillips on a reporting trip for a book on sustainable development in the Amazon, but her boat didn’t arrive as planned in the town of Atalaia do Norte, not far from Brazil’s border with Peru.
When Pereira’s friends sailed downstream and found no sign of the men or their boat, they sounded the alarm.
Brazilian authorities were slow to respond, however, and it was the indigenous communities, who knew Pereira well, who made the first troubling discovery on Saturday when they found backpacks, clothing and personal belongings belonging to the two men who had gone underground near the riverbank .
Police arrested a man, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, on Wednesday but could not conclusively link him to her disappearance. He has reportedly denied any involvement in the disappearance. Six days later, they arrested his brother Oseney and charged him with “alleged aggravated murder.”
The investigation has been marred by setbacks, from the slow response of army and navy search teams to the heavily criticized actions of the Brazilian embassy in London, which told Phillips’ family in the UK that his body had been found, only to do so withdraw statement later.
Earlier on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said the UK government was “deeply concerned” about the case after Theresa May urged the Prime Minister to make the case “a diplomatic priority”. May raised the case during Prime Minister’s Questions, citing correspondence with Phillips’ niece Dominique Davis, one of her constituents.
It also comes amid widespread criticism of Brazil’s environmental policies and the estimated 235 indigenous tribes who live in Brazil.
Deforestation has escalated under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, and government agencies committed to protecting the environment and indigenous communities have been undermined.
Pereira was a senior figure in the state’s indigenous foundation tasked with protecting indigenous communities, but was removed from office in late 2019 after leading an operation to destroy illegal mines operating on indigenous land.
He later began working with tribal rights organizations in remote areas of the rainforest to help them map their territories and protect them from invasions by miners, loggers and drug traffickers active in the region.
A crowdfunding campaign has been launched to support the families of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira. Donate here in English or here in Portuguese.