A mysterious crime in Peru revives a vampire legend that's more than 400 years old.

The state of the universe.
Dec. 17 2009 5:52 PM

The Human Grease Murders

A mysterious crime in Peru revives a vampire legend that's more than 400 years old.

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Then came talk of a cover-up. Three days before the pishtaco arrests were announced, investigative journalist Ricardo Uceda had published a startling exposé about a government-sponsored death squad in the northern city of Trujillo. Officers there had engaged in the systematic execution of 46 suspected criminals, he wrote, dating back to 2007.

Could Peru's interior minister, Octavio Salazar, have concocted the whole pishtaco affair as an elaborate distraction? He'd once been in charge of the police unit in Trujillo; now he stood accused of using the grisly Huánuco case as a smokescreen. One politician, speaking with Time, named the gambit "brilliant for its level of stupidity." Others called for Salazar to resign

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The accusations multiplied. On Dec. 1, the head of Peru's national police force suspended Gen. Félix Burga, saying he was embarrassed by the manner in which the pishtaco investigation had been carried out. Seventy-five officers had been looking into the human fat murders; now the newspapers declared the whole thing a hoax. In a radio interview, the governor of Huánuco called it " una falsedad más grande que el universo entero."

The biggest lie in the universe.

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Unlike, say, a werewolf, which lives by simple rules (full moons, yes; silver, no), the pishtaco seems to change his mien and methods with each generation. His wardrobe, for example, is maddeningly diverse—a belted tunic, a leather jacket, a Franciscan robe, a khaki shirt and matching pants. As a rule, he has white skin, although sometimes it's black, and every once in a while he's a mestizo or a full-blooded Indian. For the most part, but not always, the pishtaco works at night, stalking his victims on mountain paths, dazzling them with magic powder, and plundering their bodies for tallow and grease.

If the villain does have a classical form, it's the one wearing high boots and a felt hat, with a curved knife and a lasso made of human skin. He's handsome, with green eyes, long hair, and an unkempt beard. The anthropologist Mary Weismantel, author of Cholas and Pishtacos, cites one account wherein the vampire presents his victims with the back of his hand. His fingers then fall off, one by one, and wriggle like worms in the dirt—a sight so disturbing to mortal men that they become immobilized. Then they're dismembered.

The first written account of pishtacos—or at least of a belief in pishtaco-like behavior—comes from the 16th century. The priest Cristóbal de Molina, a scholar of native languages and Incan culture, described a certain squeamishness among the natives living around Cuzco. They wouldn't even deliver firewood to a Spanish home, he wrote in 1571, for fear of being killed and having their fat used as a remedy for some foreign disease.

We don't know if the pishtacos lurked around Andean folklore before Columbus and Cortés, but lard had long carried a sacred meaning for the Indians. The name of a great deity, Viracocha, can be translated literally as "sea of fat," and the fatty tissues of llamas and other animals are still among the religion's standard ritual offerings. The Indians' own fat, made from a diet of hardy highland crops, is deemed especially valuable, says Weismantel, while a white man's fat is said to take an inferior liquid form—it has an " unpleasant consistency."