Who ordered the killing of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira?

Murder in the Amazon reminds us of the crime against journalist Tim Lopes


By Clarinha Glock

There is a macabre similarity between the murder of journalist Tim Lopes 20 years ago, also in June, and the possible manner in which indigenous Bruno Pereira and journalist Dominic (Dom) Phillips were murdered. By June 16, what is known is that one person confessed to having quartered and burned the bodies of both men.

On June 2, 2002, the TV Globo journalist Tim Lopes, who was doing an undercover report in the Vila Cruzeiro slum in Rio de Janeiro to denounce the power of drug trafficking, disappeared. Because he was from TV Globo, this fact mobilized the media. When social media was still in its infancy, it was up to his colleagues - who were also threatened when they covered narco-trafficking in the regions, to mobilize to pressure the police to find the culprits and for justice to punish them as an example. This movement gave rise to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) to give continuity to Lopes' work and deepen security courses for journalists. Abraji grew and expanded its spectrum of struggles. As a result, those involved in the death of Tim Lopes were arrested and confessed that they had tortured him and quartered his body, which was then burned in the "microwave oven," as they called tires. The "microwave" was known to journalists who covered drug trafficking in the favelas as a method of punishing X-9s (informants).

I worked between 2000 and 2015 for the Impunity Project of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), journalistically investigating unpunished cases of communicators who were murdered after having denounced in their media outlets the authorities or people of influence and power in the region. In addition, IAPA's Impunity Project promoted protection courses for journalists in hostile environments and journalistic investigations of this kind in Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina.

I reported on more than 20 cases of journalists murdered and threatened in Brazil as a member of the IAPA Impunity Project's Rapid Response Unit. The IAPA presented come cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because they had been closed by the Brazilian justice system without punishing the perpetrators. The crimes against communicators in the Amazon region between the 1980s and 2000s were perpetrated in an urban context in the form of threats, physical violence, defamation, lawsuits, and shootings. Nevertheless, the investigation did not find any murder of a journalist with the dismemberment of the body, followed by incineration, inside the Amazon forest.

The murder of Dom Phillips, journalist for The Guardian, gave comprehensive visibility to the threats and crimes against human rights defenders. People who, like the indigenous activist Bruno Pereira, have died, and others who continue to be threatened due to the criminal actions of gold miners, loggers, and mining companies, with the encouragement of the Federal Government. Just as in the case of Tim Lopes, where it was necessary to mobilize the national and international press to put pressure to find the culprits, it was the indigenous people and the media who pressured and engaged in the search in the first days since the disappearance of Dom and Bruno on June 5, 2022.

What has changed? It is known that killing journalists is terrible for trafficking because it attracts attention and disrupts business. But the courage to kill a foreign journalist when the highest authority in Brazil threatens communicators is a different kind of intimidation and message. There is implicit authorization when a government defames, risks, and prevents journalists from reporting facts.

Recent reports indicate that drug trafficking is also operating in the Amazon. In an article published on the Piauí website, Aiala Couto, professor and researcher at the University of the State of Pará and the Brazilian Public Security Forum reports that Amazonas and Pará have become sites for regionalized criminal groups, such as Família do Norte (FDN-AM) and Comando Classe A (CCA-PA). "The route of Rio Javari, where the journalist and the indigenous were last seen, is today one of the most complex because it has the presence of the faction The Crias - a criminal group that emerged last year from a dissidence of FDN members. The Crias have established themselves on the Triple Border (Brazil-Peru-Colombia) and control the most important route used by Peruvian drug traffickers," the article states.

The executors and even the person who ordered the death of Tim Lopes were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. His murder became a milestone. Several human rights and freedom of the press groups learned that journalists were easy targets when they lacked protection from large media like TV Globo. In many cases, the suspected mastermind of these crimes were politicians and police officers. However, in most cases, only the intermediaries who pulled the trigger were identified and arrested. The video "Where are the murderers?", made in 2009 by IAPA's Impunity project on journalists murdered before the 2000s in Brazil, gives an idea of this situation.

Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira were allegedly murdered in retaliation for reports that river dwellers were invading the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land in the Amazon to fish illegally. In 2021, the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (UNIVAJA) sent information about these invasions to the Federal Public Ministry, the Federal Police, and the National Indian Foundation. In addition, UNIVAJA pointed out members of a gang of professional fishermen and hunters linked to drug traffickers who illegally enter the territory to extract resources and sell them in neighboring regions.

Who ordered the killing of Dom and Bruno? What interests did their killers defend? The identification, trial, and conviction of all those involved, especially those who ordered the killings, should be a priority at this time, not to close the case but to open a broad debate about impunity and the daily crimes in the Amazon in other Brazilian states. As UNIVAJA stated in a statement about the murder of Dom and Bruno: the case is not over. "UNIVAJA understands that the murder of Pereira and Phillips is a political crime because both were human rights defenders and died performing activities for our benefit, the indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, for our right to live well, to territory and natural resources that are our food and guarantee of life, not only our lives but also the lives of our isolated relatives. What will happen to us? Will we continue to live under threats? We need to deepen and broaden the investigation. We need effective territorial surveillance inside the Vale do Javari Indigenous Land. We need the FUNAI Ethno-Environmental Protection Bases (BAPEs) to be strengthened," says the note.

The media should be together with this process, supporting and denouncing it. It is a duty and a right to inform the population. Like in the Tim Lopes case, it is necessary to answer to society. If those who ordered this crime are not arrested, it will not only be the people of the forest who will be in the sights of the killers. All people who defend justice, ethics, and life are at risk.