Javari Valley agonizes over the same conflicts that killed Bruno and Dom a year ago

The calls for justice and help in the indigenous land which the indigenist and the journalist died trying to defend

Translated by: Lucas Peresin

Brasil de Fato | Atalaia do Norte (Brazil) |
Indigenous people search for Bruno and Dom after disappearance: a year later, little has changed - JOAO LAET / AFP

Brasil de Fato returned to the place where Bruno and Dom were killed and talked to the protagonists of indigenous resistance stories that mark the Javari Valley. A year has passed, the masterminds and executors of the crime have been arrested, but the demand remains the same: more State presence to guarantee the constitutional rights and lives of the indigenous people, who remember the indigenist with gratitude and nostalgia. 

At Funai (National Indigenous Foundation), Bruno's colleagues extol his legacy in indigenism and, in a new stage of political and union organization, do their best to ensure that his death translates, at least, into the appreciation of the civil servants lives. The indigenist's family sees the trial as a way of defending their legacy. And one of the main witnesses in the case says she is abandoned and unprepared to face the murderers' lawyers.

“We are trying to survive”

One of the last people to see Bruno and Dom alive, Sabá (not his real name) left the Surveillance Team of the Union of Indigenous Peoples from the Javari Valley (Univaja) after the murders. When he found out that the pair hadn't reached their destination, he helped to look for the bodies and identified the place where their boat crashed, out of control, against the riverbank vegetation. Now, he is one of the key witnesses in the lawsuit that could convict the perpetrators of the crime and is now part of a witness protection program.

“I fear for my life,” he reported. “I've always felt it since the fact [the deaths of Bruno and Dom] happened, since the moment I knew that I would be one of those murdered. The whole routine of my life has changed, all the freedom I had. Now I'm like a prisoner. Even finding a job is a difficult task. In the city, they don't even talk about jobs. The biggest heads of Univaja are in Brasilia. And nobody cares about who's here?"  

“If Bruno were here, things would be different. Bruno accompanied us when we were in the area. And even from a distance, he was concerned about our day-to-day lives. Today I see that nobody cares about anything. Nobody wants to know if you are well or if you are not”, says Sabá.

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If he had the money, he says he would hire a private security guard. At least to be able to visit the indigenous land, where it is not possible to enter without first passing through the fishing communities where, according to him, people who want him dead are. “You are not safe going into the village nor inside the city”.

“We had all this great military force inside Javari during the active search for the bodies [Bruno and Dom’s]. But unfortunately we are here today trying to survive, just as we were trying to survive before [the deaths]. I would do it all over again, as long as it was with my relatives”, he says.

Bruno's reconciliation with the Matis

Bruno Pereira did not have a good relationship with the Matis, one of the ethnic groups that inhabit the Javari Valley. The situation began to change when he left Funai and joined the indigenous movement. "He was having a good relationship with us. He said: 'Bushe, let's go back, I want to work with you, to do inspections. Let's go to the Branco River to see those invasions. Let’s assemble a team, logistics’. So our relationship was restarting. And then they soon killed him”, recalls the president of Univaja, Bushe Matis.

The definitive proof of the reconciliation came in the search for the bodies that followed the disappearance of the journalist and the indigenist. Bruno's belongings that had been hidden in the woods by the killers - shirt, vaccination card and a tarp, according to Bushe - were found by the Matis. To this day, the ethnic group is proud of having made a decisive contribution to the outcome of one of the most critical periods in the Javari Valley. 

“We Matis people felt that Bruno was a human, a person. He has family. We mobilized Matis's team on site to support the search. I was a supervisor at Funai, so I mobilized and formed the team. I took the Funai boat and went in loco. We added the Univaja team that was already there. We Matis have done a lot of rescue work in an attempt to search. So it was the Matis people who found Bruno's remains, materials and objects", says Bushe.

"State has changed discourse, but remains absent"

Bushe Matis says the tragedy has strengthened the determination of the leaders who make up Univaja. In Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil, a nucleus which includes the organization's legal attorney, Eliésio Marubo, and Beto Marubo, conducts dialogue with politicians, authorities and supporters. 

But the support given by federal bodies such as the Federal Police (PF) and the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) to Univaja's work does not mean that authorities are permanently present in the territory.

“The work of the State remains the same. It didn't get better, it will never get better. Funai is still scrapped, without a budget. And can you imagine the presence of the Federal Police, Ibama [Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], the Army and the National Force? It is not going to happen. Because they work on a daily basis, they don't stay here. That part of the State is absent. But Funai is always there – just Funai – trying to do something. Funai is present, but with no supervision, with no monitoring, it has no team, no logistics, no structure”, criticizes leader Matis.

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In February of this year, a government entourage with ministers of state went to Javari Valley. At the meeting, organized in partnership with Univaja, the president of Funai, Joenia Wapichana, made a public retraction regarding the conduct of the indigenist body during the government of Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), which defamatorily held Bruno and Dom responsible for their own deaths. 

In March 2023, it was the turn of the President of the Federal Supreme Court (STF), Minister Rosa Weber, to visit the territory, where she promised to resume the judgment of the time frame of indigenous lands. Just last year, a temporary Senate commission aimed at finding solutions for the Javari Valley recommended the presence of the Armed Forces in the region. 

“The discourse of the authorities is very empty”, emphasizes the president of Univaja. “They just talk, demonstrate and say they're going to help. They came here on the interministerial visit here in Javari Valley. They gathered at the Univaja headquarters and promised to do something. And so far, almost nothing has happened. There is no presence of the Federal Police, nor Ibama, nor the Army, nor the National Force, which could be working here in the Javari Valley. There is none of that."

Lack of legal assistance could jeopardize judgment, fears witness

The day after the disappearance of Bruno and Dom, June 6, 2022, Sabá told Brasil de Fato that he was suspicious of Amarildo Oliveira (Pelado), a fisherman who today responds for having shot the duo. In addition to him, Amarildo's brother, Oseney de Oliveira (Dos Santos) and Jefferson da Silva Lima (Pelado da Dinha) sit in the dock. 

“Neither Univaja nor anyone else sent us a lawyer in this case. [...] The accused, yes, are full of lawyers. The moment they question an unprepared witness, without any legal counsel, they can distort the witness' speech. It may be that some lawyer can even accuse one of the witnesses of having contradictory statements. So this can bring harm to these people”, says the witness.

The name of Ruben Dario da Silva Villar (Colombia), named by the Federal Police as the mastermind of the deaths, was also mentioned by Sabá to Brasil de Fato shortly after the crime. The version of events given by Bruno's former colleague to the report has remained the same since then and is now the key for the Federal Public Ministry to obtain the conviction of the murderers.

Judgment should take place within a year

In the team of lawyers defending the killers of Bruno and Dom, the most experienced is Américo Leal, who represented the farmer who had the North American missionary Dorothy Stang killed in the state of Pará. His client, the fisherman Amarildo (Pelado) had confessed to the Federal Police that he fired the shots at Bruno and Dom. Afterwards, he indicated to the police the place where the bodies were found burned, dismembered and buried in the woods, three kilometers from the bank of the Itacoaí River.

In May, the turnaround: Amarildo and the other accused backtracked and claimed self-defense. They went on to say that Bruno would have shot first. João Bechega, Bruno's family lawyer and assistant to the prosecution in the process, says that the allegations are not supported by facts. 

“There are reports from several people who are able to provide a context for the motivation of the crime. The boat in which Bruno and Dom were was followed and pursued by the defendants. It is already proven that the first shot hit Bruno in the back during the chase in the river. In addition to the entire reconstruction of the facts, which was possible thanks to the confession of the accused. In my opinion, the defense's thesis is quite fragile when contrasted with other evidence”, pondered Bechega. 

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In a recent decision favorable to the defendants, a habeas corpus ensured that part of the testimonies were annulled, delaying the outcome of the case and allowing the accused to redo the testimonies.Other delays were caused by failures in the internet connection where the fishermen are arrested. 

“I understand people's concerns and the anxiety that those following the case may have, but it is also important to consider that the judiciary has limits in its performance. The pace is not always what everyone expects, but the procedural progress is, in a way, fast in relation to Brazilian standards”, clarifies Bechega. 

For the prosecution assistant, mishaps will not prevent justice from being served. The next big step in the trial is for the judge to decide whether or not the defendants will go to a popular jury. In Bechega's estimate, the definition should come within a year. 

“The accountability of the individuals who committed this barbaric crime is the primary and only function of this criminal action. Now, obviously, correct handling, from the point of view of procedural institution and adequate accountability for the two homicides, is inserted in a larger context. A context of respect for the professional legacy of both Bruno and Dom”, points out the lawyer.

Justice involves holding accountability of Bolsonaro administration

Among Bruno's colleagues at Funai, doing justice for Bruno and Dom involves holding the former president of Funai, Marcelo Xavier, accountable. He was indicted by the Federal Police (PF) for possible deceit - when someone takes the risk of killing - in the double homicide, an accusation denied by Xavier. In a note, the Federal Police said that Xavier became aware, in 2019, of the “risk to the life of the agency’s servers and did not adopt the necessary measures to protect employees”.

A Funai employee, Bruno was fired in 2019 by then Minister Sergio Moro from a Funai board in Brasília shortly after coordinating an operation against illegal mining in the Javari Valley. Without support from his superiors, he took a leave of absence from the indigenist agency to work directly for Univaja. Since that time, he has received death threats. 

“Bruno embodied all this commitment that Funai employees have with indigenous peoples,” said Funai indigenist and trade unionist Mônica Carneiro to the Bem Viver podcast. “The murders took place at a time when we were experiencing tremendous institutional harassment and persecution. We were being forced to prevaricate, because the management was anti-indigenous”, reports the indigenist.

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In the last year, Mônica says that there has been a leap in the political struggle of Funai workers, motivated by the tragedy in the Javari Valley. Strikes and protests by the agency's employees put pressure on the Bolsonaro government and sought to ensure more safety and better working conditions, including for professionals who continued Bruno's work in the region. 

“Our strike after the murders was one of pain and despair. We said: 'enough, we are dying. This cannot happen.’ For many indigenists, the profession is also a life mission. And Bruno's selflessness represents that very well”, says Mônica, moved.

Other side

Brasil de Fato tried to contact the office of lawyer Américo Leal, who defends those accused of killing Bruno and Dom. One of the lawyer's assistants even scheduled an interview, but the calls were not answered at the agreed time. The space remains open to the opinion of his office.

The Brazilian federal government informed in a note that, on the eve of the first anniversary of Bruno and Dom’s deaths, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples created a working group to promote security and combat crime in the Javari Valley. The group will be made up of ten ministries, which will work in partnership with the indigenous movement, Funai and Ibama.

The group's function will be to "propose concrete measures to combat violence and guarantee the territorial security of the indigenous peoples who live in the area." “The measures under discussion are intended to cover both the prevention of crimes in the indigenous land and to facilitate the expulsion of invaders from the region”, adds the federal government.

Edited by: Flávia Chacon e Vivian Virissimo