Peru’s Murderous Fat-Stealing Gang: Crime or Cover-Up?

Perus Murderous Fat-Stealing Gang: Crime or Cover-Up?

Much of the world was shocked and titillated by news of alleged fat-stealing murderers in the Peruvian jungle. But the story may have a much more sinister underbelly. Could the allegation of homicidal liposuction possibly be a smokescreen to distract attention from other crimes, including, some local journalists say, the existence of a death squad that may be operating within the country’s national police?

The existence of marauding fat stealers was made public mid-November by General Felix Murga, head of the national police’s criminal-investigation division, and Colonel Jorge Mejia, who leads the antikidnapping unit. The Murga-Mejia team said the gang may have killed dozens of people over the past three decades and showed off two dirty bottles containing a yellowish goop they said was human fat that had been harvested for sale to European buyers in the cosmetics business. Three people have been arrested and the search continues for at least six other fat removers.

The police dubbed the gang the pishtacos, based on colonial folklore of a tall, white male who wears a broad-rimmed hat and roams the highlands, stealing the fat — and sometimes the eyes — of unsuspecting travelers. The pishtaco is equivalent to Bigfoot in the U.S. northwest or the chupacabra in the southwest. Everyone has a tale, but the creature remains elusive.

In this case, also elusive are the Italian nationals whom the police claim were paying $60,000 a gallon for unprocessed human fat; nowhere to be found, too, were the dozens of headless, fatless bodies supposedly dangling in a clandestine fat-rendering laboratory.

While the story made for spectacular news reports, the account was quickly questioned by doctors, security experts and even others in the national police. By the end of November, police authorities and not the fat thieves were the ones under the microscope.

First, the basic facts about human fat are at odds with the story. Fat does not last very long outside the body and would be of little use once stored in dirty, returnable bottles of Inca Kola, Peru’s electric yellow, bubble gum–flavored soda. Says Dr. Roni Luna, a plastic surgeon in Lima: “Human fat has no value. It can be removed from one part of a person’s body and injected into another part of the same person, but that’s it. Anyone who has taken a rudimentary class in human biology can tell you that decomposition would happen within 30 minutes or less.”

Luna scoffed at the police’s description of the gang beheading its victims, hanging the corpses upside down and coaxing out the fat with votive candles similar to those lit in Catholic churches to ask saints for favors. The police investigation included an artist’s depiction of this fat-harvesting process — a scientific impossibility.

Dr. William Mitchell, an anthropology professor at New Jersey’s Monmouth University who has studied the pishtaco myth in Peru’s central highlands, says the current story is so ludicrous that he nearly dropped the phone when his son called to tell him the news. “My first reaction was, ‘What’ This story is so crazy that the only thing I could imagine was that the police officers either believed the tale of someone trying to cover up a crime or they were trying to cover up something themselves,” says Mitchell. The daily La Republica reported on Nov. 30 that the police authorities in Huanuco, where the fat stealers supposedly operated, found out about the case from the press conference the same way as the rest of Peru.

The alleged ring operated in a well-known drug production and transit zone, with cocaine passing through on the way to the Peruvian coast and then to Europe or the U.S. by boat. Peru is the world’s second largest cocaine producer after Colombia, with a capacity to produce around 300 metric tons of cocaine annually from its coca crops.

The possibility of some kind of cover-up became part of the public debate because of the fate of an article by the investigative journalist Ricardo Uceda, published in the monthly magazine Poder. Uceda’s story detailed the supposed operation of a death squad within the police unit in the northern city of Trujillo. He documented 46 criminals shot to death by police officers in 2007 and 2008 in the city, which has a population hovering around 800,000. But the allegations of the pishtaco gang surfaced at about the time Uceda’s article was going to press. For several days, the murderous fat stealers hogged the headlines.

On Nov. 29, Peru’s media had caught up to Uceda’s explosive allegations and news magazines were filled with speculation of a cover-up, focusing primarily on Interior Minister Octavio Salazar, whose office oversees the police. Salazar is a retired police general who used to head the force’s Trujillo detachment. TV news shows, dailies and blogs were abuzz not with news of fat-stealing but of a “grease-screen,” which is how Patricia del Rio of the daily Peru 21 described what many now say is a bizarre cover-up. Both liberal and conservative media have followed del Rio’s lead, debating out loud why the national police would time the allegations of fat-stealing just as Uceda’s report was coming out.

Carlos Basombrio, who served as a Deputy Interior Minister mid-decade, speculated that the fat-stealing episode could actually be a smokescreen cooked up in the Interior Ministry to steer attention away from the explosive Trujillo case. Spokespeople in Salazar’s office said the minister could not comment on the pishtaco case because it was part of a police investigation. However, they added that all the talk in the media about a cover-up fed into a political climate heating up with the approach of the 2010 local elections. Still, one of Salazar’s predecessors, Fernando Rospigliosi, called the pishtaco case “brilliant for its level of stupidity. It is so ridiculous it should not be discussed.”

Read “Peru’s Scavengers Turn Professional.”

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.