LIMA, Peru — A gang in the remote Peruvian jungle has been killing people for their fat, police charged Thursday, draining it from their corpses and offering it on the black market for use in cosmetics. Medical experts expressed skepticism that a major market for fat might exist.
Three suspects have confessed to killing five people for their fat, said Col. Jorge Mejia, chief of Peru's anti-kidnapping police. He said the suspects, two of whom were arrested carrying bottles of liquid fat, told police it was worth $60,000 a gallon ($15,000 a liter).
Mejia said the suspects told police the fat was sold to intermediaries in Lima, the Peruvian capital. While police suspect the fat was sold to cosmetic companies in Europe, he could not confirm any sales.
Medical experts expressed doubt about an international black market for human fat, though it does have cosmetic applications. Yale University dermatology professor Dr. Lisa Donofrio speculated that a small market may exist for "human fat extracts" to keep skin supple, though 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 confessed that the gang would cut off its victims' heads, arms and legs, remove the organs, then suspend the torsos from hooks above candles that warmed the flesh as the fat dripped into tubs below.
Six members of the gang remain at large, Mejia said, adding that in addition to the five killings the suspects confessed to, the gang may be involved in dozens more. Castillejos told police that the band's fugitive leader, 56-year-old Hilario Cudena, has been killing to extract fat from victims for more than three decades.
At least 60 people are listed as missing in Huanuco province, where the gang allegedly operated, this year alone, 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 (a liter) 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 named the band the "Pishtacos" after a Peruvian myth dating to pre-Columbian times of men who killed to extract human fat, quartering their victims with machetes.
Mejia said Castillejos claimed his was not the only gang engaged in such killings.
Medical authorities reached by The Associated Press said human fat is used in anti-wrinkle treatments – but is always extracted from the patient 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."
Associated Press writers Franklin Briceno in Lima and Frank Bajak in Bogota contributed to this report.