Police say a gang in the Peruvian jungle has been killing people and draining fat from the corpses to sell on the black market for use in cosmetics, although medical experts say they doubt a major market for fat exists.
Three suspects confessed to killing five people, but the gang may have been involved in dozens more, said Col. Jorge Mejia, chief of Peru's anti-kidnapping police. He said one suspect claimed the gang wasn't the only one doing such killings.
Mejia said two of the suspects were arrested carrying bottles of liquid human fat and told police it was worth $60,000 a gallon. The fat was sold to intermediaries in Peru's capital, Lima, and police suspect it was then sold to cosmetic companies in Europe, Mejia said Thursday, but he could not confirm any sales.
International black market?
Medical experts expressed doubt about an international black market for human fat, though it does have cosmetic applications. A dermatology professor at Yale University, Dr. Lisa Donofrio, speculated that a small market may exist for "human fat extracts" to keep skin supple, but she said that scientifically such treatments are "pure baloney."
At a news conference, police showed reporters two bottles of fat recovered from the suspects and a photo of the rotting head of a 27-year-old male victim. Suspect Elmer Segundo Castillejos, 29, led police to the head, recovered in a coca-growing valley last month, Mejia said.
Mejia said Castillejos recounted how the gang cut off its victims' heads, arms and legs, removed the organs, then suspended the torsos from hooks above candles that warmed the flesh as fat dripped into tubs below.
Six members of the gang remain at large, Mejia said. Among them was the band's alleged leader, Hilario Cudena, 56, who Castillejos told police has been killing people to extract human fat for more than three decades.
This year alone, at least 60 people are listed as missing in Huanuco province, where the gang allegedly operated, though the province is also home to drug-trafficking leftist rebels.
Mejia said police received a tip four months ago that human fat from the jungle was being sold in Lima. In August, he said, police infiltrated the band and later obtained some of the amber fluid, which a police lab confirmed as human fat.
On Nov. 3, police arrested Serapio Marcos Veramendi and Enedina Estela in a Lima bus station with a quart of human fat in a soda bottle. Their testimony led to the arrest of Castillejos three days later at the same bus station.
The three are charged with homicide, criminal conspiracy, illegal firearms possession and drug trafficking, according to a statement from Lima Superior Court. Police said they were searching for the alleged buyer.
Police dubbed the gang the "Pishtacos" after a Peruvian myth dating to pre-Columbian times of men who killed to extract human fat, quartering their victims with machetes.
Medical authorities contacted by The Associated Press said human fat is used in anti-wrinkle treatments — but is always extracted from the patient who is being treated, 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, said Dr. Neil Sadick, a professor of dermatology at Cornell Weill Medical College in New York.
Dr. Adam Katz, a professor of plastic surgery at the University of Virginia medical school, was incredulous when told about the Peruvian ring.
"I can't see why there would be a black market for fat," he said. "It doesn't make any sense at all, because in most countries we can get fat so readily and in such amounts from people who are willing and ready to donate that I don't see why there would ever be a black market for fat, of all tissues."