Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira killed: ‘They thought they could get away with it’
Guarani Indigenous people and human rights activists protest demanding that the Supreme Court define the demarcation of Indigenous lands and to ask for justice in the deaths of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 23, 2022. | Andre Penner / AP

On the 15th of June, anthropologist Beatriz Matos got the dreaded news: The mortal remains of her husband, Indigenist Bruno Pereira, and of the British journalist Dom Phillips had been found in the Javari Valley, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, ten days after they disappeared. Bruno and Dom had been murdered, their bodies quartered and burned. The police arrested three men suspected of carrying out the double homicide. One of the lines of investigation is to ascertain if the crime is related to the illegal fishing of piracuru on Indigenous lands. I still had hopes he would be found alive,admits the 43-year-old widow, mother of Brunos two sons, 3-year-old Pedro Uaqui and 2-year-old Luis Vissá. In the following account, the Anthropology and Indigenous Ethnology professor at Pará Federal University (UFPA) recalls the days of agony after the disappearance of her husband, the escalation of violence against Indigenous peoples under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, the telephone call she received from ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and her demand for definitive action on the part of the authorities to avoid the recurrence of barbaric crimes like this. Professor Matos was interviewed by Lia Hama.

July 6, 2022 — I met my husband, Bruno Pereira, in 2010, when he was the FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) regional coordinator in Atalaia do Norte, in Amazonas, monitoring the Javari Valley Indigenous Land. I had been working there since 2005, but at the time we met, I was living in Rio de Janeiro, completing my doctoral studies. I was on my way to a Matsés tribal village in the region. We spoke briefly. I enjoyed his Pernambucan accent and hipster cool. Years later we met again and fell madly in love. I left my life in Rio behind and went to live with him at a site not far from the town of Atalaia do Norte.

In 2016, we moved to Belém, the capital of Pará state, because I had passed a competition and become a professor at UFPA. We had a good marriage and I gave birth to two boys, Pedro Uaqui who will soon be 4, and Luis Vissá who is 2. While I taught at the university, Bruno traveled to Indigenous settlements in the states of Rondônia, Maranhão, and Amazonas.

The anthropologist Beatriz Matos and her husband Bruno Pereira / Bruna Franchetto

Meanwhile, Bruno was exposed to the pedagogy of major sertanistaswilderness experts—like Rieli Franciscato and Altair Algayer. He felt at home in the forest. He wanted to learn all he could about the forest peoples, to understand when and where they went and how to protect their territories from invasion. He learned to speak the tribal languages of the Matis and the Matsés and a bit of Kanamari.

He was completely dedicated to the Indigenous cause. It gave his life purpose. Bruno had a strong personality. He wasn’t good at making concessions and this was often a problem for his colleagues. As far as he was concerned, the protection of Indigenous territories was non-negotiable, there were no concessions, and that is why he sometimes accused other FUNAI public servants of being bureaucratic sycophants.

We moved to Brasília in 2018, when he accepted the job of Coordinator General of the CGIIRC, FUNAI’s Isolated and Recently Contacted Indians service. Our son Pedro was just two months old. Few Indigenists of his generation had his skills, a combination of the bush savvy of his sertanista elders and the administrative experience to grok the ways of the State. As head of the GCIIRC, Bruno worked with the Federal Police to break up unauthorized mineral extraction on Indigenous lands. That made him a nemesis to illegal miners.

When I met Bruno, he had already received death threats, but there was an escalation of violence after Bolsonaro took over. The message of the federal government to invasive miners, deforesters, fishermen, and hunters is: “Use terror! There will be no consequences.” The fishermen who admitted killing Bruno and Dom have been in the region for years. Everyone knows who they are. The fact they committed the crime in broad daylight with various witnesses is what’s new. Maybe they thought they could get away with it!”

In 2019, a partner of Bruno’s, the Indigenist Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, with his daughter sitting behind him on his motorbike, was shot in the head twice and died instantly. The Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (Univaja) accused Amarildo da Costa Oliveira (aka “Baldy”) and his gang, but there was no follow-up. [Baldyis also suspected of ordering the deaths of Bruno and Dom.]

Barbaric crimes like these are happening all over the nation, especially in the Indigenous Territories. FUNAI workers in every region have terrible tales to tell. In November 2019, they assassinated one of the leaders of the Forest Guardians, Paulo Paulino Guajajara. The Guardians are a vigilante group from the Guajajara, Kaapor and Awa-Guajá tribes in the state of Maranhão.

Bruno was making many people nervous. At the end of 2019, he was fired from his job at the GCIIRC after a joint operation with the Federal Police in the Javari Valley when a number of large rafts used for mineral extraction were destroyed. He was granted unpaid leave from the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) and began to work as a Univaja consultant, saying it was impossible for anyone to accomplish anything constructive under Bolsonaro’s regime. So we returned to Belém.

I got very angry when they said that Bruno was on an “adventure” when he and Dom were ambushed. He was never irresponsible, always very cautious. He was always armed, ever since he was threatened in 2015. Dom Phillips was writing a book about the Amazon, and Bruno agreed to help him contact Indigenous riverbank dwellers. Phillips was interviewing people in those communities about different ways of managing the pirarucu (a large-scaled Amazon fish, Arapaima gigas, said to be the largest fresh-water fish on the planet). Many fishermen are in dialogue with FUNAI and the Indigenes. It’s a difficult job because illegal fishing and drug trafficking bring in a lot more money than sane forest management. I think Baldy’s gang’s homicidal solution meant: “Enough of this negotiating. From now on, we’re in charge!”

I was with my sons in Belém when I got the news that Bruno had disappeared. On Sunday, June 5th, Beto Marubo from Univaja, phoned me: “Bia, Bruno and Dom were returning from a meeting, they were supposed to be in Atalaia around nine o’clock this morning. We have people on the river searching for them.” I was shocked by the news but did not despair because I know the region. Canoes can get swamped and stranded and the only solution is to climb into a tree and wait for help. I thought that’s what Bruno and Dom might have done.

Days passed and there was no sign of them. I asked a friend to stay with me and my children, just in case. I’m from Belo Horizonte, and Bruno was from Recife, so my support team in Belém is made up only of friends.

I never gave up hope of finding him alive, but I knew, with each passing day, that chances were slimmer. I clung to the stories of other sertanistas and remembered a group that survived a plane crash in the Javari Valley. The plane came down in the river and two days after the accident, with everyone presumed dead, the survivors were spotted by Indigenous people. Among them was a pregnant woman who had given birth to a daughter.

I have been in constant contact with Beto Marubo and Univaja and with the staff of the Observatory of the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI), a non-governmental agency that Bruno and some of his friends founded in 2020. Four members of OPI took part in the search. When they found the backpacks with Bruno’s and Dom’s possessions at the bottom of the river, it became clear that the situation was dire. They sent me a photo and I recognized Bruno’s Bermuda shorts and his health plan card. I was beside myself.

The days and weeks of waiting for word drove me crazy. I spent long hours glued to Twitter, receiving WhatsApp messages, scouring the web for news. I was so anxious, that I couldn’t sleep. On Monday, June 13, I read on Twitter that the Brazilian Embassy in London had informed Dom’s family their bodies had been found. I felt my heart begin to race. “Stay calm, it may be fake news.”

I was sure that the people at OPI or Univaja would set things straight. I called Carolina Santana at OPI and she assured me they hadn’t found the bodies. Some hours later the Twitter London story was refuted.

I was riding an emotional roller-coaster from desperation to hope, from grief to joy, until it came. On Wednesday, June 15, Carolina Santana said, “Bia, they found the bodies.” The word “bodies” turned out to be a euphemism, as both men were cut in pieces that were then burned. When they found their remains, my only desire was that Bruno’s death had been quick. I was relieved when I learned he had been shot and was not alive for the sickening sequel.

I don’t know where I found the strength to confront the horror. I had to deal with the tragedy while taking practical steps. I went to our dentist for X-rays of Bruno’s teeth to confirm his identity.

The most delicate matter was sharing the news with our boys. My psychiatrist and I rehearsed an approach. “Daddy had a big, big problem at work, we have to wait.” They asked: “When is he coming home?” I said: “I don’t know. Soon I hope. Mommy’s upset, but Daddy’s strong.” After word of his death, the story changed: “Daddy was defending the people he works with in the forest from other people who want to take their things. There was a fight and Daddy is not coming back.” Pedro asked, “Did they kill Daddy?” “Yes,” I answered. Luis asked, “Did they shoot him?” I told them the truth.

Then things got spiritual: “Daddy is always going to be here with us, he’s going to live in our hearts.” They’re both working on their interpretations of what happened. They talk about their father all the time, remembering things he said and did with them. I took both boys to Belo Horizonte so they could play with their cousins. I still spend a lot of time keeping them out of range of the press. I did not let them go with me to any of their father’s memorial services because they would have been a magnet for the cameras.

I am moved by how Indigenous peoples of different ethnicities have dealt with Bruno’s death. I received videos of the Matsé people shaving their hair, something they do when their relatives die. I watched tapes of Kanamari, Guarani, and Kayapó homages. It seemed to me they were saying: “They are killing us and they are killing our allies.” Despite never having known Bruno, the Pankararu and Xukuru peoples honored him by singing spirit songs at his memorial in Recife. Their recognition meant a lot to me because it was clear that Bruno’s importance had gone way beyond the boundaries of the Javari Valley.

I have spent years working with Indigenous people and it is very rare to receive this kind of recognition. Usually, they are distrustful: “You white people come to rob our culture. You want to make money at our expense.” To me, Bruno’s spirit is ubiquitous. I am often reminded that he is with me and our boys. He whispers in my ear, “Hey, Beatriz, pay attention! No need to weep. Keep going, you’re very strong.”

Xucuru Indigenous attend the funeral of Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira at the Morada da Paz cemetery, Recife, Pernambuco state, June 24, 2022. Indigenous groups, family, and friends paid their final respects to Pereira who was murdered in the Amazon region with the British journalist Dom Phillips. | Teresa Maia / AP

Bruno took part in shamanic rituals and drank ayahuasca with the people of the forest. In a video that went viral, he is singing a praise song from the Kanamari’s initiation of new pajés (shamans.) The lyrics speak about the ayahuasca vine which provides its precious liquid to the shamans just as the arara (macaw) places food in the beaks of its chicks. Bruno often sang this melody to put the boys to sleep. When the Kanamari explained the song to the press, they made Bruno part of the metaphor: “Just like the arara feeds its young, Bruno was feeding us.” They explain that he has become one of the encantados, protective spirits of the forest.

When the deaths were confirmed, former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva called me to offer me his condolences. He said he wants to meet with me when he goes to Belém. I received not a word from Bolsonaro, although he sponsored a motorcycle rally in Belém two days after Bruno’s and Dom’s remains were found. At the memorial service in Recife there were representatives from both the state and city governments, but no one from the federal sphere.

I want the assassins to be imprisoned and to pay for their crimes. But what I want most is to see to it that terrible, life-altering crimes like this do not recur. It is of utmost importance that people feel safe to travel on the rivers of the Javari Valley and that the civil servants employed by FUNAI feel secure enough to work in this remote but important region once again. Above all, it is essential that the Indigenous peoples live and thrive without the threat of invasion and destruction of their lawful territories. That is my workplace and I want to be able to go back there with my sons so that they can know the locale where their father was active.

I compare Bruno’s death to the murder of the rubber tapper and union organizer Chico Mendes and that of the American missionary Dorothy Stang. They were all killed for wanting to preserve the Amazon rainforest and the Indigenous peoples who inhabit it. I want the outrage resulting from Bruno’s and Dom’s deaths to act as a powerful reminder of the need to better the life conditions of these peoples and of their allies. Nothing will bring Bruno back but I trust with all my heart that his death has not been in vain.

Translated from Portuguese by Peter Lownds for People’s World. The original publication in piauí can be viewed here.


Beatriz Matos
Beatriz Matos

Beatriz Matos is professor of Anthropology and Indigenous Ethnography at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).