Peruvian police peddle “pishtaco” paranoia

A gang in a jungle area of Peru’s Huánuco region has been killing people to harvest their fat for sale on an international black market, police charged Nov. 19. Medical experts express skepticism at the authorities’ claim that the fat is extracted for use in cosmetics by companies in Europe. But Col. Jorge Mejia, chief of the National Police Kidnapping Division, said three suspects have confessed to killing five people for their fat, and two were arrested carrying bottles of liquid fat. At least five other suspects, including two Italian nationals, remain at large, authorities said. Police said the gang could be behind the disappearances of up to 60 people in Huánuco and Pasco regions.

The gang is being referred to as Los Pishtacos—suggesting that the story may be embellished by deep fears in the Peruvian psyche. The Pishtaco is a bogeyman of Quechua folklore who abducts children to kill them and harvest their fat. This was a pretty blatant analogy for the Spanish exploiters of colonial times, but there is much paranoia even today about suspect origins of cooking fat. Even educated and middle class Peruvians will insist that the Pishtaco really exists. Have they been proven right? Or is Col. Mejia just similarly paranoid?

Mejia said the suspects told police the fat was sold to intermediaries in Lima. While police say they suspect the fat was sold to cosmetics companies in Europe, Mejia could not confirm any sales. The chief of the Criminal Investigation Directorate (DIRINCRI), National Police Gen. Eusebio Félix Burga, said the suspects told police the fat was worth $15,000 a liter ($60,000 a gallon). National Police commander Ángel Toledo said arrested ringleader Hilario Cudeña confessed that the gang had been carrying out kidnappings to pishtaquear their victims for more than 20 years. Yet other accounts said that Cudeña remained a fugitive.

The regional president of Huánuco, Jorge Espinoza Egoavil, loaned credence to the claims, suggesting the Los Pishtacos could behind the recent wave of roadside kidnappings in the department.

At a news conference, police showed reporters two bottles of fat recovered from the suspects and a photo of the rotting head of a 27-year-old male victim. Mejia said that suspect Elmer Segundo Castillejos, who led police to the head, said that other Pishtaco gangs are still operating in Peru.

Medical experts reached by the Associated Press expressed doubt about an international black market for human fat, while admitting it could have cosmetic applications. Yale University dermatology professor Dr. Lisa Donofrio speculated that a small market may exist for “human fat extracts” to keep skin supple, though scientifically such treatments are “pure baloney.”

Human fat used in anti-wrinkle treatments is always extracted from the patient being treated, usually from the stomach or buttocks. “There would be a risk of immunological reaction that could lead to life-threatening consequences” if fat from someone else were used, said Dr. Neil Sadick, a professor of dermatology at Cornell Weill Medical College in New York.

Yet Dr. Adam Katz, a professor of plastic surgery at the University of Virginia, while still incredulous about the Pishtaco ring, seemingly contradicted the notion that human fat is only used when extracted from the patient. “I can’t see why there would be a black market for fat,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense at all because in most countries we can get fat so readily and in such amounts from people who are willing and ready to donate that I don’t see why there would ever be a black market for fat, of all tissues.” (AP, BBC News, Andina, Peru, El Comercio, Lima, Nov. 20; EFE, Nov. 19)

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  1. File under “No, ya think?”
    From BBC News, Dec. 2:

    Peru human fat killings ‘a lie’
    Peru’s police chief has suspended a top investigator for saying he had caught a gang who were murdering people to sell their fat.

    Last month, top organised crime investigator Felix Murga said police had arrested four suspects who confessed to murdering up to 60 people.

    He said they were selling their fat for thousands of dollars a litre.

    But the macabre tale now appears to be nothing more than a tall story—or a big fat lie…

    [T]wo weeks later a complete lack of evidence showed the police account to be more fiction that fact.

    As a result Peru’s chief of police, Miguel Hidalgo, announced Mr Murga would be put on indefinite leave from his job for sullying the reputation of his unit.