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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

The first bottle—the one with the Inca Kola label still affixed—was filled with something thick and yellow-brown. The other bottle contained a dark fluid and some grainy bits. An evidence table had been carefully arranged for the cameras by the Peruvian National Police: The pair of one-liter soda bottles, a half-dozen small canisters, some coils of safety fuse, and a few sticks of dynamite—each labeled with display cards in block print. Gen. Eusebio Félix Murga, director of Peru's criminal investigations unit, balled his hand into a fist as he spoke to the gathered crowd. "We have broken up a criminal gang," he said, "which traffics human fat."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Three suspects were in custody; at least one had confessed. Police said the gang had been operating out of the highland jungle region of Huánuco, about 160 miles from Lima. There they would confront strangers on country roads and lure them into the jungle with the promise of employment. In a remote makeshift laboratory, a victim would be bludgeoned to death, his head and limbs hacked off with a machete, and his eviscerated torso hung from metal hooks. Votive candles warmed his abdominal flesh from below, so its rendered fat would drip through a funnel and collect in a basin on the floor. Reporters at the Nov. 19 press conference were shown a sketch of how all of this was supposed to work.

There was video footage, too. Twenty-nine-year-old Elmer Segundo Castillejos, who had been arrested a few weeks earlier at a bus station in Lima, was leading a column of police officers through a valley of coca plants. Gesturing with his cuffed hands, he points them to a trove of human remains—ribs, thigh bones, and the decomposing head of Abel Matos Aranda, who'd been murdered somewhere in the Andes in September.

Further details were hazy: Gen. Félix Murga reported that six members of the gang were still at large, including the ringleader—a man said to have been engaged in the practice since the 1980s. As many as 60 Peruvians, he surmised, might have been slaughtered for their fat. Castillejos and his buddies claimed to be getting $15,000 for each bottle of human grease, from a pair of Italian Mafiosi serving as intermediaries to the European cosmetics industry. According to the police, the material was being used for a line of skin-softeners.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Jorge Sanz Quiroz, referred to the suspects as brujos, or witches. But other officials used a more provocative nickname to describe those in custody—one that referred to an Indian legend that dates back more than 400 years, of pale-skinned vampires who kidnap peasants and suck out their fat with tubes and syringes. "It's an Andean myth that we've now been able to prove," announced a government spokesman. The police had captured a gang of pishtacos.

In a matter of days, the official story began to fall apart. Early reports challenged its central premise—that there might be any market at all for stolen blubber. What possible use could Westerners have for the flesh of Andean peasants? With obesity rates as high as 25 percent or 30 percent (PDF) in the developed world, weren't we already swimming in our own sea of fat?

Yes, a surgeon performing a facelift in Paris or New York might deposit a teaspoonful of fat along the creases at the sides of a patient's mouth. And it's true that some women now have fatty tissue injected directly into their bosoms, in a technique known, without irony, as "natural breast augmentation." For these procedures, though, doctors use the patient's own fat, cut from her belly or thighs.

Medical experts in Peru noted that liposuction clinics discard hundreds of liters of excess human fat every day. And even if the pishtacos did manage to fence their stolen grease, what about the body parts they left behind? The kidneys, livers, and lungs, for example—in-demand organs that would fetch a mint on the black market.

As reporters dug into the story, more details began to unravel. BBC Mundo reported that Interpol had no knowledge of the case, despite claims from the Peruvian police that a global manhunt for the two Mafiosi was in the works. On Nov. 30, the newspaper La República discovered that the local authorities in Huánuco, a region long known for its cocaine merchants and drug violence, hadn't been aware of any murder spree until the general gave his press conference.

The police were accusing the pishtaco gang of having hacked up 60 people in their jungle hut, but there was evidence for just one killing—the decapitation of Abel Matos Aranda. That murder now seemed more like the product of a local vendetta than some international conspiracy.

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

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."  

Thus the foreigners' insatiable appetite for native grease, a central part of the legend in all its tellings. Through the 1950s, at least, pishtacos were said to dress like Christian monks, hypnotizing Indians with prayer bells. The fat they stole would end up in churches, as fuel for altar lamps or statue polish. Ethnographers report that more recent incarnations carry syringes instead of knives, and forgo their mules for SUVs. Now they use the grease to lubricate industrial machinery and make airplanes fly—or they send it to pharmacies and restaurants in Lima. Some pishtacos are even said to extract lard with a camera and store it in rolls of film. When director Werner Herzog went to the Amazon 30 years ago to shoot Fitzcarraldo, he was accused of stealing fat (and faces) from his Indian crew.

Various accounts have the creatures dressed as doctors and aid workers, as tourists and anthropologists. In September 1987, rumors spread that a vast army of pishtacos was making its way toward Peru's Indian settlements. As real-life commando squads swarmed the countryside in search of leftist guerillas, anthropologist Nathan Wachtel heard this new version of the folktale: It was said the president had unleashed 5,000 bearded white men into the jungle, he wrote in Gods and Vampires, an account of his fieldwork in the Andes. These pishtacos carried machine guns and wore long green coats. They were on a special mission from the government: to pay off the country's foreign debt with human tissue.

There may have been some basis, in centuries gone by, for this fear that an army of white invaders would overrun the Indians' land and take their fat. The first great battle of the Spanish conquest was fought in March 1519 on an open field near the Mayan town of Cintla. Thousands of warriors had assembled to ward off the invading army: "Their squadrons were so numerous that they covered the whole plain and they rushed on us like mad dogs," wrote Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a young conquistador and eyewitness to the day's events. When the musket smoke had cleared, the bodies of 800 Indians lay strewn across the savannah. As the soldiers regrouped, one of these corpses was pulled aside and its flesh carved out in strips. The Spaniards had no oil with which to dress their wounds, explained Díaz, so they used human fat instead.  

According to Matthew Ramsey, historian of medicine at Vanderbilt University, early modern Europeans made frequent use of human bones, blood, hair, urine, excrement, and afterbirth. No one objected to this practice so long as the parts in question derived from criminals—sold wholesale, a sideline for the executioner—or from people of foreign lands. (Among the most sought-after treatments was the preserved flesh of Egyptian mummies.) The 16th century physician Paracelsus wrote that some of these medicines could be obtained only from a man who had suffered a violent death.

Human grease was touted as a remedy for arthritis and gout, and the soft animal fat called axungia—sometimes derived from people—was thought to speed the healing process. So it's only natural that the conquistadors would have dressed their wounds with Indian flesh. The practice of medical cannibalism continued among the nations of Europe—and, presumably, their colonies in the New World—for the next 300 years.  

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As a metaphor, the Andean legend is easy enough to decipher. Whether the villains are conquistadors, Catholic priests, mining engineers, or gun-toting drug dealers in the jungle, they stand in for five centuries of exploitation and extraction—a narrative of foreign powers feeding from the soft belly and open veins of Latin America.  

The pishtacos come from far away, to make church bells and sugar mills from native fat.

Sometimes, though, myth and reality become so convoluted that it's hard to tell them apart. In the mid-1980s, a rumor spread through Brazil and Honduras that a sort of urban pishtaco was on the loose—in large blue or yellow vans with drivers from the United States or Japan. They were cruising the favelas, people said, and abducting small children. The victims would be mutilated, their eyes extracted for the organ trade, and their mangled bodies left by side of the road or tossed between rows of sugar cane.

These tales of capitalism run amok were easy fodder for propagandists in the Soviet Union and Cuba. In April 1987, Pravda reported that thousands of Honduran children were being trafficked to the United States and their organs transplanted to the bodies of rich Americans. The story spread over the years, and the panic grew into a longstanding paranoia: In 1994, a visitor to Guatemala from Fairbanks, Alaska, was nearly beaten to death with sticks and metal pipes after someone claimed she'd tried to stuff an 8-year-old child in her suitcase. Washington responded with its own report in 1996, calling the theft of baby parts "a totally unfounded, horrifying rumor" and an "urban legend."

Do Westerners steal bodies and body parts from the developing world, or don't they? We know that thousands of organs are trafficked around the globe every year, sometimes by gun-toting criminals. "Transplant tourists" take luxury trips to the developing world and come back with other people's kidneys—a practice thought to account for 10 percent of all such procedures.  Whether the donors are coerced by force or by need, it's hard to know.

Even last month's pishtaco affair hasn't been so easy to dismiss. On Dec. 3, the president of Peru finally spoke to reporters about the arrests in Lima. Gen. Félix Burga was wrong for having shot his mouth off to the press, he said; it was an exaggeration to say that 60 people had been killed. But the rest of the story—the fat, the bones, maybe even the two Italians—was on the level. "I insist that there was a grain of truth at the beginning of the whole thing."

Meanwhile, laboratory tests had confirmed that the yellowish fluid in the soda bottles was human grease. In an interview with El Mundo, lead prosecutor Jorge Sanz Quiroz pointed out that more than one skeleton had been found in the shallow jungle grave and that the men now in custody had confessed, without coercion, to stealing fat for a period of years. What's more, said Sanz Quiroz, the suspects had never claimed to be selling to the cosmetics industry. They'd told the police that shamans and sorcerers were buying up the fat to make candles for satanic rites.

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Meanwhile, politicians remind us that we're 4.6 billion pounds overweight, at a cost of $147 billion to the health care system—and 1 billion gallons of gasoline. (By those calculations, that's about $65 for each one-liter bottle of fat.) Now they say we can raise money by stripping the fat from our bones. Like a pishtaco, they'd make their extractions from the bodies of the poor and dispossessed, with junk food taxes and punitive insurance premiums.

Never mind that these " cost of obesity" numbers make no sense at all. The fattest people in the United States tend to have the fewest resources; they're black and Latino; they die young; they leave the smallest carbon footprints. Yet technocrats wielding pencils and scales would render their bodies for dollars and cents.

Fat is money. Some things never change.

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