I kid you not, this story appeared this week on the CBS news website. Perhaps they’ve got a nine-year-old kid sitting in the chief reporter’s chair. Anyway, as of today they had not taken this story down.
LIMA, Peru, Nov. 21, 2009
A Peruvian Black Market in Human Fat?
Medical Experts Dispute Lima Police Claims That Gang Murdered Victims, Drained Fat From Bodies to Sell to Cosmetic Makers
Yep, the lead says it all really, but still CBS decided it was worth running this garbage as if it could some how be credible.
It has all the hallmarks of an urban myth and is the same sort of hoax as Baby Herbal Soup (been there, done that, it’s all over).
The fat criminals story is datelined Lima and in the fine print at the bottom of the screen it’s sourced to Associated Press. Surely there’s got to be some skepticism in the newsroom. Even so, the copy screams “whack job”:
A spokesperson for the Criminal Police told a news conference in Lima that the criminal organization which trafficked human fat had been disbanded.
Pictures from a Peruvian police handout video showed police in Huanuco province leading suspects to the spot where they allegedly buried their victims, and unearthing and measuring buried remains.
AP Television cannot independently verify the content of the Peruvian police video or the authenticity of these claims made by Peruvian police.
Julio Castro, Dean of Peru’s Medical College said that human fat had some medical purposes.
“It can be used in implants, but the fat implanted must be that of the same person undergoing the procedure,” he added.
A professor of plastic surgery at the University of Virginia medical school was skeptical when told about the Peruvian ring.
He said he could not see why there would be a black market for fat because in most countries fat can be obtained so readily and in such amounts from people who are willing and ready to donate it.
The major sources quoted in the story cast doubt on the substance (fat) of the police claims.
My favourite comment comes from this chatroom thread
…if human fat is so valuable, then America could be the world’s biggest supplier — we have the largest supply of this natural resource, and it’s renewable!
Now if we could just refine it into engine fuel . . .
thanks to Jeffrey at The Marmot’s Hole
Yeah, so much for peak oil, some overweight Americans could get healthy and save the planet, one kilojoule at a time. Apparently Peruvian “intermediaries” in Lima were paying up to $US 60,000 a gallon for the human fat.
However, I’m not so sure this could be right. If you read this alleged gang member’s account of how the fat is rendered, it would be well and truly rotten before you could collect anywhere near a gallon.
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.
What an efficient and hygenic way to remove fat from someone. Why would you bother?
While the source here is listed as “suntimes.com”, which is the Chicago Sun Times, I actually downloaded this piece from the citizen journalism “experiment” site NowPublic, which should also be much more careful about its sources and just rehashing agency wire copy.
The story also appeared in the Jakarta Globe, the BBC and on CNN. The CNN story is interesting because some enterprising reporter (possibly an 11-year-old) obviously knows that you have to move a story on if you want to get on in journalism. So this is what they were able to add to the mix:
The suspects told authorities they were paid $15,000 for a liter (about 1 quart) of human fat.
Officials did not disclose what possible use laboratories could have for the human fat, but fat can be a component of cosmetics and is used in reconstructive or cosmetic surgery. The use of human fat for any purpose is extremely rare, however, physicians say.
According to a criminal complaint [police prosecutor] Sanz Quiroz filed November 18, officials discovered on September 22 a small container containing a fat-like substance that had been stored at the Bella Durmiente bus station in Lima, Peru’s capital.
On November 3, the complaint says, suspect Serapio Marcos Veramendi Principe was arrested after he retrieved three bottles from the Estrella Polar bus station. The bottles contained a substance authorities believe is human fat, the complaint says. Lab tests are being performed to determine what the substance is.
That’s all good stuff. A named official source saying it’s a “fat-like” substance and a confession from “suspects”:
Sanz Quiroz acknowledged the uniqueness of the allegations.
“We are not making this up,” he said. “They have confessed to this. That’s what’s coming out now.”
One of the suspects told officials he had been committing the murders for five years.
But then, the CNN story gets really weird, and it again takes on the mysterious qualities of a hoax or urban myth:
Sanz Quiroz referred to the suspects as “brujos,” the Spanish word for witches. He noted that the suspects are part of an Andean mountain culture that believes bodies can be used to ward off evil and prevent disasters.
For example, he said, bodies are often buried at the entrances to mine shafts and bridges in the belief they will keep the structures from collapsing.
Authorities are calling the suspects “pishtacos,” which are Andean mythological creatures.
In his 1996 book “Death in the Andes,” Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa mentions pishtacos extensively, saying they are half-white ghouls who live in caves, lurk along dark isolated roads and suck the fat out of anyone careless enough to travel Andean roads at night. Andean myth holds that the fat is used to make soaps, lubricants, healing potions and cosmetic creams.
So, we have a half-plausible story that uses official sources to back-up what seem, at first glance, to be wildly implausible claims. Then we have an historical reference — albeit to the fictional work of a novelist — that seems to confirm some truth in the story and give in a frisson of extra-weird and then the kicker in the tail of the CNN story — a link to the Nazi Holocaust. Sheeeeeeyyyyyiiiiittt, this has gotta be real!
New York dermatologist Barry Goldman said he had never heard of human fat being sold on the black market.
“The idea that anybody would use an injectable where you didn’t know where it came from would be laughable if it weren’t unethical and potentially dangerous,” he said.
Still, the notion of black market human fat seemed possible to him.
“They steal kidneys, so why not this?” he asked. “It is sick, but in the Holocaust they did use skin for lamps.”
Here it is, affirmation by reference to even more historical and mysterious precedents. You know, the one about waking up in a strange, seedy hotel in an ice bath with painful stitches across your abdomen. Organ harvesting is a $75 million dollar industry worldwide (Yeah, right).
And human skin lamps? Yep, every decent Nazi had one in his or her front room right from the late 1930s until the allies liberated Berlin.
Why do I think this is an urban myth? Well, for a start it’s already made it onto the aggregators. forums and other lower-order internet hangs where these things gestate. Also, it is alleged to have happened deep in the Amazon jungle, so the area’s relatively inaccessible and finally, it is in an area where people regularly disappear because of the cocaine trade.
To me that’s a more likely explanation for any murders that might have been committed and it also explains the existence of the “rudimentary labs” that the police say they found.
In the BBC video report — which certainly gives the story some credibility — the footage was shot by the police and the only source is a cop spokesman. That’s not journalism is sensationalist and gruesome stenography.
To be sure, I don’t know if this is an urban myth, but I think so and I’m willing to bet a litre or two of my own fat on that. You can even come ’round and extract it with a hot candle if you like, though give me $15,000 and I’ll liposuction it into a champagne bottle for you.