Peruvian gang ‘killed peasant farmers for their fat’

Author: By Guy Adams

The men have confessed to a total of five killings, but are suspected of
dozens more. Police believe they approached their victims on remote roads
and lured them to a hut in the jungle with talk of being able to introduce
them to a potential employer. Instead, the victims were bludgeoned to death.

Each of their bodies then had its head, arms and legs cut off. Major organs
were removed, and discarded, before the torso was suspended from hooks in
the ceiling of the hut. Candles were placed beneath, so that melting fat
would dribble into pots, pans and other collecting vessels.

“We have broken up a criminal organisation dedicated to trafficking
bodily fluids and human fat,” said local police commander Angel Toledo,
on Thursday. The large containers of illicit fat were latter decanted into
bottles for export, he added.

“Without a doubt [the gang] have committed various crimes like kidnapping
and conspiring to commit criminal acts. [They] have spoken about how they
committed crimes with the purpose of extracting their fat in rudimentary
laboratories to later sell for the price of $15,000 (£9,000) per litre.”

Col Jorge Meija, the chief of Peru’s anti-kidnapping police, added that all
three suspects had been charged with homicide, criminal conspiracy, and
illegal firearm possession. They face life imprisonment if found guilty.

The fat they harvested was apparently to be shipped to Italy, via
intermediaries, where it would end up being used in expensive skin-softening
beauty creams. General Felix Burga, Peru’s chief policeman, added that there
is evidence that the gang was one of several operating out of the country as
part of “an international criminal network trafficking human fat”.

Medical experts expressed scepticism at police claims denying, for example,
that human fat would be worth $15,000, or that it would have skin-enhancing
properties. A dermatology professor at Yale University, Dr Lisa Donofrio,
said a small market may exist for “human fat extracts” to keep
skin supple, but that scientifically such treatments were “pure baloney”.

However, the grisly nature of the case has caught the public imagination in
Peru and overseas. The gang have been dubbed the “Pishtacos” after
an ancient Peruvian myth about white colonialists who killed indigenous
people, quartered their bodies with machetes, before extracting the fat and
turning it into a range of perfumed soaps.

Regardless of their commercial success, the gang seems, at the very least, to
have perfected the art of fat-extraction. Two of Col Meija’s suspects,
Serapio Marcos Veramendi and Enedina Estela were arrested at a bus stop in
Huanuco province carrying soft-drink bottles filled with an amber liquidised
substance that lab tests later showed was liquidised human fat.

The duo claim to have been en route to Lima, roughly 300 miles south, where
the contents of the bottles were to be sold to intermediaries. A further six
of their alleged accomplices, including two members of the Italian mafia,
and the organisation’s alleged leader, Hilario Cudena, 56, remain at large.

Police believe that the gang, and others like it, could have been carrying out
versions of the scheme for almost three decades. At least 60 people have
been reported missing in the largely-rural Huanuco region, together with its
neighbouring Pasco province, in recent years ? though the mountainous
region, in the centre of the country, is also home to drug-trafficking,
left-wing rebels.

Col Meija told a news conference that his officers had infiltrated the gang
after receiving an anonymous tip-off about their activities four months ago.
One of the arrested men, Elmer Segundo Castillejos, allegedly led undercover
agents to a burial site in a coca-growing valley, where a
partially-decomposed head was discovered.

At Thursday’s press conference, Col Meija held up two bottles of the
amber-coloured fat, together with a photograph of that now very shrivelled
head.

Cosmetic claims: A strange business

Whatever it was that the Fat Gang were up to with their gruesome activities in
the Peruvian jungle, they appear to have had little business sense.
According to reports, after killing their victims and hacking off their
heads they removed their organs before stringing up the torsos above candles
to collect the fat.

If the reports are accurate then the gang discarded their most valuable asset.
A spare kidney, liver or lung is worth thousands of dollars on the global
black market, and there is a huge unmet demand. By contrast, it is
impossible to imagine who would be prepared to buy a bottle of human fat at
any price, let alone the quoted $60,000 (£36,000) a gallon. As plastic
surgeons on both sides of the Atlantic have pointed out, there is a vast
supply of human fat readily available in any cosmetic surgery clinic
obtained by liposuction from wealthy, overweight Westerners. If cosmetic
companies had any need for human fat they would not need to source it from
the Peruvian jungle. There is a ready supply much closer to home.

Moreover, given the cosmetic surgery industry’s reputation for spotting new
business opportunities, if they could make $6 a gallon on it, never mind
$60,000, they would be unlikely to pass it up.

It is conceivable that somewhere on the wilder shores of the cosmetics
industry there are products based on human fat extracts, backed by
extravagant claims for their skin-rejuvenating powers. But there is nothing
unique about human fat in terms of its cosmetic function. The cosmetics
industry is littered with strange products backed by strange stories. But
this is the strangest of them all.

Jeremy Laurance Health Editor

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