Gang lured victims to grisly death ‘for trade in human fat’

(TIMES ONLINE) Since the days of the Spanish conquests, the children of the Andes have been terrified by tales of strangers who kill South American Indians on lonely roads, sucking out their fat to make lotions and potions for sale in the West.

A police officer displays two bottles said to contain human fat

A police officer displays two bottles said to contain human fat

Now the figure of the “Pishtaco” has jumped from myth into reality, after Peruvian police revealed the arrests of a gang who have been killing for human fat, allegedly for sale to the European cosmetics industry.

Police in Lima, the capital, said that three suspects had confessed to killing five people, luring their victims into the Peruvian jungle with promises of work before cutting off their heads and limbs to collect fat. But the gang may have been engaged in the gruesome practice for decades, police suspect. At least 60 people, mostly farmers and indigenous Peruvians, have gone missing in the area this year alone.

At least six other suspects remain at large, including the gang’s alleged leader, Hilario Cudeña, 56. One of those arrested, Elmer Segundo Castillejos, said that Mr Cudeña had been murdering for fat for more than 30 years. The lead prosecutor, Jorge Sans Quiroz, said that two Italian citizens were suspected of conspiring to sell the fat “to be commercialised in European laboratories”, although no sales have yet been confirmed.

Two of the suspects were arrested in Lima carrying a bottle of liquid human fat, which they told police was worth $15,000 (£9,000) a litre, said Colonel Jorge Mejía, the head of Peru’s anti-kidnapping police. One had claimed that their gang was not the only one in the trade, he said.

Police showed reporters in Lima two bottles of amber fluid and the picture of a rotting head of a 27-year-old male victim. Mr Castillejos, 29, had led officers to the head, dumped in a coca-growing valley in the Huánuco region, after his arrest last month, Mr Mejía said.

Mr Castillejos told police how the gang had removed the victims’ heads, arms, legs and organs before suspending the torsos and warming them, causing fat to drip into tubs.

The gang has been dubbed the “Pishtacos” after the centuries-old myth of rich, pale-faced strangers killing travellers. The mythical killers were the conquistadors and their descendants, symbolising European exploitation of the indigenous tribes of the Andes.

Medical experts were incredulous at the case, casting doubt on the existence of a significant black market for human fat. Neil Sadick, a dermatology professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, said that human fat was used in anti-wrinkle procedures but was always extracted from the patients themselves, 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, he said.

One plastic surgery professor, Adam Katz, of the University of Virginia, said that even if fat from strangers were to be used, donations were easy to come by. “It doesn’t make any sense at all, because in most countries we can get fat so readily,” he said.

A dermatology professor at Yale University, Lisa Donofrio, speculated that a small market might exist, outside mainstream cosmetics, for human fat extracts to keep skin supple, but said that scientifically such treatments were “pure baloney”.

Police said they had first become aware of the gang’s existence four months ago, when they received tips that human fat from the jungle was being sold in Lima.

The police intercepted a container filled with fluid on its way to the capital from Huánaco and tests confirmed that it was human fat, Mr Mejía said. On November 3, police arrested Serapio Marcos Veramendí and Enedina Estela in a Lima bus station with a litre of human fat. Their testimony led to the arrest of Mr Castillejos three days later at the same station.

The group have been charged with homicide, criminal conspiracy, illegal possession of firearms and trafficking, according to court documents.

Slim pickings

In 1917 The Times was the first paper to report that the Germans were boiling down fat from their dead soldiers to make soap. The story became widely accepted. In 1925, the Foreign Secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain, admitted that it had been a lie

Last year a surgeon in California was accused of using human fat to fuel his car. Dr Craig Alan Bittner extracted triglycerides from fat he acquired in liposuction operations and converted it to diesel. The state health department started an investigation

Also last year, Pete Bethune, a New Zealander, broke the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe by speedboat in a vessel running partly on the skipper’s own body fat. Earthrace was powered entirely by biofuel and went round the world in 11 minutes short of 61 days

Fat cells removed during liposuction can be turned into stem cells used to regenerate human tissue. In October, doctors in Cincinnati replaced a 14-year-old boy’s cheekbones using fat cells from his own body.

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