Police in Peru have arrested four people, three men and a woman, whom they allege are members of a gang suspected of killing up to 60 people in order to extract their body fat to sell for thousands of dollars a litre to foreign markets to make cosmetics.

According to a report published in the national newspaper Perú 21 on Thursday, the gang, known as “Los Pishtacos” named after a demon who according to Andean tradition killed people to rob them of their body fat, were operating in the provinces of Huánuco and Pasco, inland from neighbouring Lima.

The National Police of Peru (PNP) first came across evidence of the gang’s work when they seized a store of human fat on 3rd November at the warehouses of a company called Estrella Polar in the capital, Lima.

They also arrested two of the suspects there, along with a gun and drugs. The police started the investigation after receiving reports that human fat was being shipped from the mountains to the capital.

The fat was stored in used soda and water bottles, which the police showed to reporters, said a Reuters news agency report.

After further investigation, the PNP determined that the detainees were members of a “murder for profit” organization and despatched 23 specialist detectives to search for other members of Los Pishtacos in villages in the provinces of Huánuco and Pasco. They subsequently arrested two more suspects.

According to Perú 21, the authorities believe the gang has been operating for several years and is responsible for the disappearance of 60 farmworkers and villagers, including children. They are trying to trace at least 7 other members of the gang, who are thought to be hiding in the mountains of Huánuco.

At a news conference in Lima, police showed reporters two bottles of fat they had recovered from the suspects and a photograph of the head of one of the gang’s victims. They said one of the suspects had led them to the head, recovered in a valley last month.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the Peruvian police said one of the suspects had described to them how they would cut of the heads, arms and legs of their victims, take out their organs and hang the torsos from hooks above candles to warm the flesh so the fat could drip out into tubs positioned underneath.

Colonel Jorge Mejia, chief of Peru’s anti-kidnapping police, told the press that two of the suspects were carrying bottles of liquid fat when they were arrested, and had told the police it was worth 15 thousand (US) dollars a litre.

In the meantime the four detainees are being held in the capital, Lima, and have been accused of “homicide for reasons of profit”. The authorities have not ruled out that the gang may also be involved in organ trafficking.

Reuters reported that Police Commander Angel Toldeo told the press:

“We have people detained who have declared and stated how they murdered people with the aim being to extract their fat in rudimentary labs and sell it.”

The police said the suspects had told them they sold the fat to middlemen in Lima, whom the authorities suspect were selling it to cosmetic companies in Europe, although they presented no evidence of any sales.

In the meantime, medical experts are expressing doubts that a major black market for human fat exists, although it can be used to make cosmetics.

A dermatology professor at Yale University in the US, Dr Lisa Donofrio told the Associated Press (AP) that it was possible that there is a small market for human fat to make products to keep skin supple, but she referred to the science behind it as “pure baloney”.

Other experts contacted by the AP said they were sceptical about a black market for human fat because it was so easy to get hold of legally from people willing to donate it, and in many instances, such as anti-wrinkle treatments, the fat is taken from the patient’s own body, such as the stomach or buttocks, because this reduces the risk of life-threatening immune system reactions.

Sources: Reuters, AP, Perú 21.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD