‘We are all asking for justice’: the unsolved murder of the man Bruno Pereira framed | Brazil
When Nomeia Pereira dos Santos learned that Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira had been murdered, she wept and thought of her own son Maxciel.
Officer of the Brazilian agency for the protection of indigenous people, Funai, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos had worked in close collaboration with Bruno Pereira patrolling the increasingly perilous waters of the Javari Valley region in remote Amazonas. Tracking down illegal fishing and hunting operations, seizing weapons and ammunition – it was poorly paid and precarious work, which many believe cost both men their lives.
In September 2019, Maxciel was gunned down in cold blood on the streets of the Brazilian town of Tabatinga, located on the tri-state border between Peru and Colombia. Nearly three years later, the murder remains unsolved.
“He never told us about the dangers of the job, so we wouldn’t worry,” Nomeia, 65, said in her small home in Tabatinga as she clutched her son’s green uniform. “But he said it was a job for brave men.”
“I believe his death was ordered by the same people who ordered Bruno’s death.”
Noemia dos Santos had not spoken publicly since Maxciel’s murder, but said the deaths of Phillips and Pereira helped her to speak out and seek justice for her son. She has not received any news of the ongoing police investigation for years and the family does not have the funds to pay for a lawyer.
“When I heard about Bruno and Dom, the same sadness came back to me,” she told the Guardian. “We are all asking for justice.”
Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was her youngest of 11 children, whom she raised as a single mother. A photo of him, frozen in his Funai uniform, adorns a wooden shelf in the corner of the living room next to a vase of flowers.
During a career at Funai that spanned 12 years, Santos earned a reputation as a diligent enforcer of federal laws protecting the region’s indigenous peoples. He was involved in a number of seizures in the valley shortly before he was shot, said members of the indigenous rights group Univaja, who share the family’s belief that Santos was murdered because from his work.
The region, almost the size of Ireland and Wales combined, has only a handful of Funai outposts and has seen an increase in illegal logging, gold mining , hunting and drug trafficking. Documents seen by the Guardian show that Santos’ mission at the time he was killed was “to carry out territorial control and surveillance” on indigenous territory.
“The bad guys don’t die the way he was killed,” said Manoel Chorimpa, a Univaja member and former city councilor in the riverside town of Atalaia do Norte.
Maxciel was shot twice in the head, according to an autopsy report. Family members said he was killed in execution style as he rode his motorbike down the street, with his partner sitting behind him. He had been recalled to Tabatinga at short notice while he was on a mission with Funai, according to several sources.
Brazil’s federal police did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation.
Santos’ death came just weeks before Bruno Pereira, his friend and mentor, left Funai amid sweeping changes at the agency under the newly elected Bolsonaro administration aimed at reducing his power and limiting its ability to execute.
Upon his election, the far-right leader sidelined Funai by moving it from the Justice Ministry to a new Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. The agency has also lost significant expertise, with 37 of Funai’s 39 regional coordinators now coming from outside the office, most from the military and six with no government experience, according to a recent report by Indigenistas. Associated and Inesc.
The report alleges that many of the agency’s experts have been sidelined or fired under Bolsonaro, with meaningful enforcement action now “impossible due to insufficient budget”.
In an unedited interview transcript with Bruno Pereira published by Folha newspaper after his death, the former Funai official criticized the agency’s leadership under the current president.
“The more he [Bolsonaro] destroys, smears internal regulations and threatens employees, the more successful he is,” Pereira said in comments that were unofficial at the time.
Internal Funai documents, written in the aftermath of Santos’ murder and reviewed by the Guardian, reveal that agents working in the Javari Valley had pleaded with supervisors to send more resources to the area.
In a letter dated January 16, 2020, two Funai agents stationed in the region asked their superiors stationed in Brasilia to send more law enforcement resources, claiming that the security situation had become untenable.
The letter lists 27 points, including the killing of Santos, which they call “possible retaliation for…seizure of environmental contraband” and states that a Funai checkpoint in the area has been shot at seven times. “creating a climate of impunity and fear among professionals”. who act to protect this indigenous region”.
A Funai spokesperson did not respond to questions about Santos’ murder. The spokesperson said the agency requested more resources in the Javari Valley region as recently as February 2022, but did not provide details.
Before his death, Maxciel had shared a few details with his family, but they had noticed how precarious his job had become.
“The whole family voted for Bolsonso, but everything got worse after his election,” said his older brother Oziel Pereira dos Santos. But Santos continued to do his job “because he loved the knowledge that came from the indigenous people.”
The family remains furious that little has apparently been done to solve the crime. They said they were told they were not entitled to any compensation after his murder.
Santos left behind two young daughters, Gabrielle Cristine, 17, and Maria Eduarda, 11, whom he supported throughout their lives.
“He was a good father, and my life changed a lot after his death,” said Gabrielle Cristine. “We are not starving, but we have no money to buy new clothes.”
Although he protected his children from the risks he took at work, they had some idea of the perils on the river.
“He never told us,” said Gabrielle Cristine. “But he never invited us to come with him either.”