Police in Brazil have confirmed the devastating discovery of the bodies of two men in Amazon, close to the area where British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira went missing almost two weeks ago.
One of two men arrested over the disappearance of the duo confessed to having buried the pair in the jungle, federal police said at a press conference late Wednesday night.
Human remains unearthed from the site were sent to Brasilia Thursday morning to be officially identified by experts. Results are likely expected by next week.
Phillips and Pereira, his guide, went missing June 5 in a remote part of the Amazon that is rife with environmental crimes including illegal mining, fishing and logging, as well as drug-trafficking.
Police did not specify whether the suspect, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, had also confessed to killing the pair, saying only that he admitted to having participated in the episode and "recounted in detail the crime that was committed and indicated the place where he buried the bodies."
Eduardo Alexandre Fontes, head of federal police in Brazil's Amazonas state, told a press conference that Oliveira said the two men were fatally shot.
The location where the remains were found was "very difficult to reach," the police officer said, speaking in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon.
"Excavations have been carried out on site. The excavations will continue, but human remains have already been found. As soon as we have been able to verify with the help of expertise that it is indeed the remains of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, they will be returned to the families."
Fontes said that there was "a 99-percent probability" the remains "corresponded" to the missing men.
Earlier in the day, Oliveira was taken by police to the search site along the Itaquai River, media reports said.
Phillips' Brazilian wife, Alessandra Sampaio, in a statement thanked "all the teams that carried out the search, especially the Indigenous volunteers."
"Although we are still awaiting final confirmation, this tragic finale puts an end to the anguish of not knowing where Dom and Bruno were," she said. "Today we also begin our fight for justice... we will only have peace when the necessary measures are taken to ensure that such tragedies do not happen again."
The other suspect, a man reported to be Oliveira's brother, Oseney da Costa Oliveira, was arrested Tuesday in Atalaia do Norte – the city Phillips and Pereira were returning to when they disappeared in the Javari Valley after receiving threats during a trip.
Brazilian media report there may be more people involved. Police have not confirmed the information, but have not ruled out more arrests. Investigations continue into the motive for the crime.
Amarildo, a fisherman, was arrested on June 7. Both he and Oseney are 41 years old.
Nature defenders, colleagues and family members of the two men expressed anger Thursday as evidence mounted they were murdered in the Amazon, laying the blame at the door of Brazil's government.
Phillips, 57, a long-time contributor to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and other leading international media outlets, was working on a book on sustainable development in the Amazon.
Pereira, 41, a highly regarded advocate for the region's Indigenous peoples, was acting as his guide while on leave from his job with the Brazilian government's Indigenous affairs agency, or FUNAI.
Phillips' family said in a statement they were "heartbroken" by the discovery of two bodies, while Greenpeace Brazil said the deaths were "a direct result of the agenda of President Jair Bolsonaro for the Amazon, which opens the way for predatory activities and crimes to be reproduced in broad daylight."
The Javari Valley where the men went missing – an area near the borders with Peru and Colombia – is home to about 20 isolated Indigenous groups where drug-traffickers, loggers, miners and illegal fishermen operate.
"In the last three years, our country has increasingly become a land where the only valid law is that of 'anything goes," said Greenpeace of Bolsonaro’s first term in office. "It has become a land of invasion and land grabbing; of mining and illegal logging; of territorial conflicts, and where it’s worth killing to ensure that none of these criminal activities are prevented from happening. All this is fuelled by the actions and omissions of the Brazilian government."
Bolsonaro has pushed to develop the Amazon, the world's largest tropical rainforest, since he took office in 2019.
President blames victims
On Wednesday, the Brazilian president drew fresh criticism for saying Phillips was "disliked" for his reporting on the region and should have been more careful.
"That Englishman was disliked in the region, because he wrote a lot of articles against illegal gold miners [and] environmental issues," said the far-right leader.
"A lot of people didn't like him. He should have more than redoubled the precautions he was taking. And he decided to go on an excursion instead," he told journalist Leda Nagle in an interview for her YouTube channel.
"All signs indicate that if they were killed – and I hope that's not the case – they're in the water, and in the water there won't be much left. I don't know if there are piranhas in the Javari," Bolsonaro said.
He again appeared to blame the missing men, saying it was "very reckless to travel in that region without being sufficiently prepared, physically and with weapons."
His comments triggered an outcry from critics. "How disgusting," journalist Ana Luiza Basilio wrote on Twitter. Opposition lawmaker Orlando Silva agreed, tweeting: "The victims are not the ones to blame."
The two men's disappearance sparked global outrage, drawing reaction from high-profile political figures as well as celebrities including Irish rock band U2, legendary Brazil footballer Pelé and music legend Caetano Veloso
The Univaja Indigenous peoples grouping, which had taken part in the search for the missing pair, denounced the suspected killings as a "political crime," while the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism said "the president and his allies have become protagonists of attacks on the press" uncovering environmental crimes.
"The level of violence applied to Bruno and Dom makes clear how the Amazon is at the mercy of the law of the most powerful, under which brutality is the rule," said WWF Brazil. "The State abandoned the Amazon due to a meaningless project of destruction of the forest and extermination of its peoples."
"People dead for defending Indigenous lands and the environment. Brazil cannot be that," said ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who will face Bolsonaro in October elections.