Police in Brazil have strong evidence that an alleged drug trafficker ordered the murders of a British journalist and an Indigenous activist in the Amazon last June, a police chief said on Monday.
Police believe Ruben da Silva Villar, who uses the nickname “Colombia” and is in custody, ordered the murders of the two men, Eduardo Fontes, chief of federal police in the Amazonas region, said at a news conference.
Fontes said the case over the murders of U.K. journalist Dom Phillips, 57, and Bruno Pereira, a 41-year-old Indigenous activist, was “90 percent” wrapped up and “practically closed.”
“The investigations are in the final phase and we have strong evidence that point to ‘Colombia’ as the mastermind of these crimes,” Fontes said.
Da Silva Villar has been in police custody since December, but his identity was difficult to pin down as he carried three sets of identity papers, two from Peru and one from Brazil, police said.
Authorities finally determined that he was born in Puerto Narino, Colombia, a town in an Amazon region near where the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet.
Fisherman Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, nicknamed Pelado, confessed that he shot Phillips and Pereira and has been under arrest since soon after the killings in early June.
Phillips and Pereira were shot dead June 5 in Valle de Javari, a remote area where illegal fishing, mining and logging are rife. Both men disappeared “after receiving threats,” according to an association that worked with the Indigenous expert.
Fontes said Villar had provided weapons and boats to three men accused of the actual murders, and later paid for the lawyer for one of them.
Phillips, a freelance journalist whose work had appeared in The Guardian and The New York Times, was traveling with Pereira doing research for a book on the Amazon.
Villar was detained in July, and freed in October on bond. But courts ordered his imprisonment again after he failed to meet conditions of his conditional freedom.
In a statement, UNIVAJA, the local Indigenous association that employed Pereira, said it believed there were other significant planners behind the killings who have not been arrested.
Journalists working for regional media outlets in the Amazon have been slain in recent years, though there had been no such cases among journalists from national media nor foreign media. However, there have been several reports of threats, and the press has limited access to several areas dominated by criminal activity, including illegal mining, landgrabbing and drug trafficking.
In September 2019, an employee of the Indigenous affairs agency was shot dead in Tabatinga, the largest city in the region. The crime was never solved.
In 2017, British citizen Emma Kelty was killed while attempting to kayak the length of the Amazon. The 43-year-old Londoner vanished after she posted comments on social media sharing her fear of being robbed or murdered in a remote jungle area of northern Brazil that is used by drug traffickers and pirates.
That same year, Brazilian prosecutors investigated reports that gold prospectors may have killed members of a so-called uncontacted tribe in the Amazon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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