LADARIO, Brazil — One year ago on a Friday afternoon, Bruno Pereira, an expert on Indigenous peoples, and Dom Phillips, a British journalist, motored along the Itaquai river in far western Brazil, to the settlement of Ladario. The line of wooden houses here marks a boundary — between the sprawling Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon and the non-Indigenous world.
They were greeted by the man everyone knows as Caboclo, Laurimar Lopes Alves. Pereira’s relationship with people like him in these river communities had often been tense. Pereira had been a lead official with the nation’s Indigenous agency until recently, and these non-Indigenous communities were frequent trespassers onto Indigenous land to hunt and fish. He had fought those practices fiercely, confiscating and destroying fishing gear.
But Pereira now sought a different approach. He was on leave from the government, helping to build alternative livelihoods in these remote and desperately poor communities, which receive virtually no support from the government, although they are legally entitled to it.
“I told Bruno that by the end of the month, I would harvest 700 clusters of bananas. He said, ‘I will go to Brasília and come back with a solution for you to sell bananas,’” Caboclo told The Associated Press.
But Bruno would not return. Within 48 hours, on June 5, 2022, he and Phillips, who was writing a book on how preserve the Amazon, would be ambushed and shot, their bodies burned, dismembered and buried in a shallow river grave.
As the one-year anniversary of the murders approached, The Associated Press returned to the Javari Valley to describe the backdrop against which the murders took place and what unfolded next.
Caboclo, 46, who cannot read and supports five children, did not find a new market for his banana harvest. Instead, the Federal Police came looking for him. They accused him of taking part in illegal fishing and took him to the nearby city of Tabatinga, where the prison is run by criminal organizations. Caboclo admits he had fished illegally in the past, but claims he stopped doing so years ago.
RIPPLE EFFECTS IN A FORGOTTEN PLACE
To pay for a lawyer, his mother-in-law had to sell her house. He now lives in the city of Benjamin Constant, far from the banana grove and cassava patch that provided his livelihood. In March, when the AP met him, his home detention allowed him out four hours a day, while his fields are five hours away. Their only income now for a household of ten is $240 per month from a federal benefit.
Caboclo was charged with participation in an illegal fish organization and spent 124 days in prison without trial, which his attorney, Mozarth Bessa Neto, says surpassed the legal limit of 81 days.
Upstream, the community of Sao Gabriel is just a few wooden houses, several of them empty. There, an AP reporter found Maria de Fátima da Costa, 60, knee-deep in the river, cleaning a wooden plank.
Da Costa is the mother of Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, a fisherman who confessed to the murders and is in a maximum-security prison thousands of kilometers away. She agrees her son must pay for the crime he committed, but tears up recounting that her other son, Oseney da Costa de Oliveira, was also charged with murder, something he denies. He is just as far away, in a different prison.
“He is innocent. I am sure he is innocent. And his house is abandoned, his family is abandoned, everything is falling apart,” she said, with tears in her eyes. Oseney has four children, who live with his wife in Atalaia do Norte. She cleans houses now.
“The other accused individuals say that Oseney is innocent,” Goreth Rubim, Oseney’s attorney, agreed. There is no concrete evidence in the federal case of his involvement in the murders, he said.
The AP sent inquiries to the Federal Police but did not receive a response.
In Sao Gabriel, there is no electricity or plumbing. Without internet access, the community relies on one public phone, which was out of service when the AP visited. The only government help comes from the city hall, which distributes food during flood season, when fish are scarce and there are no crops.
The federal government promised things were going to be very different here.
These river communities, of mixed African and even Indigenous ancestries, date back to the rubber era, which began in the late 1800s. That industry steadily declined after World War II and never recovered, leaving thousands of families in poverty across the entire Amazon region.
Many rubber tapper descendants turned to logging, but when Indigenous lands were legally recognized in 2001, they were no longer permitted into that forest. Those who had built there, had to move.
Although a main distinction of these settlers is that they are non-Indigenous, their actual ancestry is African and Indigenous, from other parts of the country, so they live with color-ranking racism.
To address their conditions, in 2011, the federal government created a land reform project called the Lago de Sao Rafael Agroextractivist Project that on paper, seemed promising: 71,000 hectares of forest (175,000 acres), where they may fish and harvest.
It was supposed to bring electricity, rural lines of credit, and technical assistance for managed fishing and acai-growing and other non-depleting ways of making a living. But none of this happened.
The National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform, known as Incra, only allocated $5,100 for five families, it said. In other words, the Brazilian government spent $425 per year on average for a sustainable land reform project that covers an area four times the size of Washington, D.C.
The closest Incra office is in Manaus, a 2-hour flight if a resident were able to get to the nearest airport.
The government’s absence is so profound here that 81-year-old Martins dos Santos, who actually founded the São Gabriel community, was unaware that he is living in an official settlement until he was informed of it by the AP.
“I have never seen an Incra official,” he said. He wasn’t aware the place is called Lago de Sao Rafael. When the AP mentioned the acronym for the government effort, PAE, which is well-known in some Amazon regions, he and other residents confused it with the Portuguese word for father, “pai.”
The broader area, Atalaia do Norte, ranks third-worst among more than 5,500 Brazilian municipalities on the U.N. Human Development Index, scored on illiteracy, standard of living and health.
STATE OF THE CASE
Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira was not the only person to confess to the murders. Another fisherman, Jeferson da Silva Lima, did too, and is also in prison awaiting trial.
Amarildo claims that military police suffocated him with a plastic bag to get his confession. Documents from a medical exam at the time show the two brothers had minor injuries after being arrested by Amazonas state police. The agency did not reply to questions about whether the claim was investigated.
A Colombian businessman, Rubens Villar Coelho, stands accused of masterminding the crime, and is also in custody. As the owner of a floating fish warehouse outpost, he financed fishermen who ventured onto Indigenous land on trips that could last weeks. He denies any involvement with the murders.
Some see the crime as a reflection of how much Brazil’s Indigenous agency, Funai, was dismantled under far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, who long opposed the very concept of Indigenous land rights. He wanted to open up the territories for economic activities such as mining and commercial agriculture.
Experiencing that pressure firsthand in his job at Funai, Pereira requested a leave of absence and was working as an advisor for Univaja, an organization that brings together six Indigenous peoples living in the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory, when he was murdered. It is an area roughly the size of Portugal and home to the world’s largest population of isolated Indigenous groups, at least 16.
Pereira’s intention for communities to raise their standard of living through legal activities remains a distant reality now.
Recently a local fishermen’s association reported that police were using harsh tactics against them, and managed to secure free federal legal assistance. The police and other officials “are entering homes without a warrant and confiscating fishing gear under the justification that they belong to illegal fishermen. Not all fishermen are criminals, but they are being treated as such,” it said.
The crime also changed Caboclo’s life.
During the conversation with AP, he wept recalling his time in prison. “I didn’t know what a criminal gang was. Now I know.”
Another complaint relates to the publication of several reports linking São Rafael to drug trafficking, although the police investigation found no evidence of such a connection. “I have never seen drugs in my life,” reassures the former rubber tapper.
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