Police in the Brazilian Amazon have found the bodies of two men in the area close to where British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira went missing 10 days ago.
At a press briefing late on Wednesday, regional police chief Eduardo Fontes said one of the two men arrested in connection with the pair’s disappearance had confessed to killing them.
“On Tuesday he informed us the location where the bodies were buried and he promised to go with us today to the site so we could confirm where the bodies were buried,” Fontes told reporters.
“Because of the confession there is a big chance it is them but only (forensic) expertise can prove that,” he added.
The location identified by the suspect was an hour and 40 minutes by launch from the town of Atalaia do Norte and another 3.1 km by foot into dense forest.
The operation involved members of the army, navy and police force as well as satellite imaging, drones and sniffer dogs.
“We are now going to identify the human remains with the most dignity possible,” Fontes said. “When the remains are proved to be those of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, they will be delivered to the families.”
The news was greeted with relief by Phillips’ wife Alessandra Sampaio.
“Although we are still awaiting definitive confirmations, this tragic outcome puts an end to the anguish of not knowing Dom and Bruno’s whereabouts,” she wrote in a statement. “Now we can bring them home and say goodbye with love.”
“Today, we also begin our quest for justice. I hope that the investigations will exhaust all possibilities and bring definitive answers on all relevant details as soon as possible.”
Sources said search teams plan to return to the site on Thursday to locate the men’s boat. The men were last seen traveling upriver towards Atalaia do Norte and Fontes claimed the suspects tossed the engine in the river and then filled the boat with sacks of earth so it would sink.
“We are still investigating,” he said, adding that new arrests were expected. “This was a significant advance.”
The press conference was held in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, where a series of military and police officials congratulated themselves for the work done.
Sources initially made no mention of the indigenous people who helped lead the search but after he was challenged by a reporter he acknowledged the local help. “We were wrong not to mention the partnership with the river people and the local indigenous people,” he said. “Their help was crucial.”
Phillips, 57, and Pereira, 41 went missing on 5 June, at the end of a four-day trip down the Itaquaí river in the far west of Brazil.
Pereira was scheduled to accompany Phillips on a reporting trip for a book about sustainable development in Amazon but their boat did not arrive as at the town of Atalaia do Norte, not far Brazil’s border with Peru.
When Pereira’s friends sailed downriver and found no trace of the men or their boat they raised the alarm.
However, Brazilian authorities were slow to respond and it was the Indigenous communities who knew Pereira well that made the first unsettling discovery on Saturday when they found rucksacks, clothing and personal items belonging to the two men submerged near the banks of the river.
Police detained one man on Wednesday, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira, but failed to link him conclusively with their disappearance. He has reportedly denied any involvement in the disappearances. Six days later they arrested his brother Oseney and charged him with “alleged aggravated murder”.
The investigation was dogged by setbacks, from the sluggish response of the army and navy search teams, to the heavily criticized actions of the Brazilian embassy in London, who told Phillips’ family in the UK that his body had been found, only to retract the statement later.
Earlier on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said the UK government was “deeply concerned” about the case after Theresa May called on the prime minister to make the case “a diplomatic priority”. May raised the case during prime minister’s questions, citing correspondence with Phillips’ niece Dominique Davis, one of her constituents.
It also comes amid widespread criticism of Brazil’s policies on the environment and the estimated 235 Indigenous tribes living in Brazil.
Deforestation has soared under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and government agencies devoted to protecting the environment and Indigenous communities have been undermined.
Pereira was a senior figure in the state Indigenous foundation charged with protecting Indigenous communities but was removed from office in late 2019 after he led an operation to destroy illegal mines operating on Indigenous land.
He later began working with Indigenous rights organizations in remote areas of the rainforest to help them map their territories and protect them from invasions by miners, loggers, and drug-traffickers active in the area.