When Nomeia Pereira dos Santos heard that Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira had been murdered, she wept and thought of her own son, Maxciel.
Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, an official with Brazil’s Funai Protection Agency, had worked closely with Bruno Peirera, who patrolled the increasingly dangerous waters of the Javari Valley region in the remote Amazon. Tracking down illegal fishing and hunting activities, confiscating guns and ammunition — it was low-paid, precarious work that many say killed both men.
In September 2019, Maxciel was shot dead in cold blood on the streets of the Brazilian city of Tabatinga, which lies on the three-state border between Peru and Colombia. Almost three years later, the murder remains unsolved.
“He never told us about the dangers of the job so we wouldn’t worry,” said Nomeia, 65, at her small home in Tabatinga, while clutching 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 Peirera helped her speak out and demand justice for her son. She hasn’t heard about the ongoing police investigation in years, and the family doesn’t have the money to pay for a lawyer.
“When I heard about Bruno and Dom, the same sadness came over me again,” she told the Guardian. “We all demand justice.”
Maxciel Pereira dos Santos was her youngest of eleven children she raised as a single mother. A photo of him, rigid in his Funai uniform, adorns a wooden shelf in the corner of the living room, next to a vase of flowers.
During his 12-year career at Funai, Santos earned a reputation as a diligent enforcer of federal laws protecting indigenous peoples in the region. Shortly before he was shot, he was involved in a series of seizures in the valley, said members of the indigenous rights advocacy group Univaja, who share the family’s belief that Santos was murdered because of his work.
The area, almost the size of Ireland and Wales combined, has only a handful of FUNAI outposts and has seen a rise in illegal logging, gold mining, hunting and drug trafficking. Documents seen by the Guardian show that Santos was tasked with conducting “territorial surveillance and surveillance” on indigenous territory at the time of his assassination.
“Bad people don’t die the way he was killed,” said Manoel Chorimpa, a Univaja member and former councilor in the riverside town of Atalaia do Norte.
According to an autopsy report, Maxciel was shot twice in the head. Family members said he was killed, execution-style, while riding his motorcycle on the street while his partner sat behind him. According to several sources, he had been recalled to Tabatinga at short notice while on Funai assignments.
The Brazilian federal police did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation.
Santos’ death came just weeks before Bruno Peirera, his friend and mentor, left the Funai amid sweeping changes at the agency under the newly elected Bolsonaro government aimed at limiting its power and enforcement capacity.
After his election, the far-right leader sidelined the Funai by relocating them from the Justice Department to a newly created Department of Women, Family and Human Rights. The agency has also lost significant expertise as 37 of 39 FUNAI regional coordinators are now from outside the office, most from the military and six with no government experience whatsoever, according to a recent report by Indigenistas Associados and Inesc.
The report claims that under Bolsonaro, many of the agency’s experts have been sidelined or fired with meaningful enforcement actions that are now “impossible due to insufficient budgetary resources.”
In an unedited transcript of an interview with Bruno Peirera, released by the Folha newspaper after his death, the former FUNAI official criticized the agency’s leadership under the current president.
“The more he [Bolsonaro] destroys, messes up internal regulations and threatens employees, the more successful he is,” Peirera said in comments, which were confidential at the time.
Internal FUNAI documents written after Santos’ murder and reviewed by the Guardian reveal agents working in the Javari Valley had asked supervisors to send more resources to the region.
In a letter dated January 16, 2020, two FUNAI agents deployed to the region urged their seniors based in Brasília to send more law enforcement resources, claiming that the security situation had become untenable.
The letter lists 27 counts, including the Santos murder, which they describe as “possible retaliation for … the confiscation of environmental smuggling,” and explains that a FUNAI checkpoint in the region had come under fire seven times, “which among experts created a climate of impunity and fear acting to protect this indigenous territory”.
A Funai spokesman did not respond to questions about Santos’ murder. The spokesman said the agency did not request more resources in the Javari Valley region until February 2022, but gave no details.
Before his death, Maxciel had shared few details with his family, but they had noted how precarious his work had become.
“The whole family voted for Bolsonso, but after his election everything got worse,” said his older brother Oziel Pereira dos Santos. But Santos continued his job “because he loved the knowledge that came from the indigenous people”.
The family remains outraged that little appears to have been done to solve the crime. They said they were told they were not entitled to compensation after his assassination.
Santos left two young daughters, 17-year-old Gabrielle Cristine and 11-year-old Maria Eduarda, whom he had 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 for new clothes.”
Although he protected his children from the risks he took at work, they were sensitive to the dangers out on the river.
“He never told us,” Gabrielle Cristine said. “But he never invited us to come with him either.”