Peru villagers murdered to make anti-wrinkle cream
November 20, 2009
LIMA – Police in Peru infiltrated and cracked a gang that was kidnapping locals, killing them and draining their fat for use in the beauty industry. The gang has reportedly been active for 30 years in the remote areas of the Andes.
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 $15,000 (U.S.) a litre. 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. The fat was reportedly to be used as an ingredient in anti-wrinkle cream.
Experts were quick to cast doubt on the scientific merit of the macabre scheme.
“In theory, yes, any lipid (fat) can be used in the production of cosmetics, but the quality would be, shall we say, variable. This is, of course, putting aside the ghoulish nature of this story, and the legal concerns, which preclude it happening,” said Chis Flower, director general of the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association in England.
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, Peruvian 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 litre 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.
“This is indeed a very disturbing story,” Andrea Hopp, chair of the Ontario chapter of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, said in an email. She also wrote that she’d never heard of any scientific study of “human derived raw materials” in Canadian cosmetics.
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.