A deeply strange serial murder case from Peru – involving the apparent butchering of 60 or more people in the mountainous Huánuco region so that their bodies could be rendered for their fat – rang a distant bell when I turned to it. According to the BBC, the gang of killers (four of whom were caught in possession of bottles of the stuff [right], and who were allegedly realising $15,000 per litre for it from a cabal of European cosmetics manufacturers) have been nicknamed ‘The Pistachos‘ “after an ancient Peruvian legend of killers who attack people on lonely roads and murder them for their fat.”
I first mentioned the pistachos (more properly pishtacos) years ago in a 1989 Fortean Times news item (FT51:9 – and see also FT93:16), though back then they were described as child abductors and there was no mention of human fat at all. The legend is actually very well-known in Peru and throughout much of South America, but it seems to have been new to some of the journalists who wrote up the murder case, several of who explained that the word is used nowadays to refer to any murderer for hire. One Portuguese journalist went so far as to define ‘pistachos‘ as “vampires who feed on fat.” This strikes me as a very modern adulteration of what is a far more interesting and ancient legend. “Pishtaco” actually derives from the Quechua word “pishtay”, meaning to shred or cut into strips, and Alberto Tauro del Pino, in his magisterial Enciclopedia Ilustrada del Perú (Lima: 6 volumes, Editorial Peisa, 1987) v.5, defines it to mean a bandit whose occupation is robbing lone women or men. The pishtaco‘s modus operandi, Tauro del Pino adds, is to strangle his victims, after which he eats their meat and sells their fat. The mutilated victims are either buried, sometimes still alive, to fertilize the soil, or disposed of by being interred in the foundations of buildings.
It seems possible this latter detail is another more modern addition to a centuries-old story capable of multiple interpretations; my own first guess was that the pishtacos may have had their origins in a combination of old fertility rites and the sort of desperate measures resorted to in order to stay alive in horribly impoverished areas during times of dearth and drought. That idea is supported by some scholars, but other interpretations are possible. Antonio Gonzalez Montes, of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, prints a variant story in which the fat obtained from the pishtacos‘ victims is used to lubricate machinery and keep it working, while the American anthropologist Mary Weismantel, in her Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of Race and Sex in the Andes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), notes that such stories “often begin with the dangerous moment when a stranger appears on Indian land” and tells another tale in which the killers are Francsican monks, hooded and robed, and the fat they take is used to grease church bells – apparently so as to improve their tone.
For most of Weismantel’s informants, the pishtaco was “a foreigner” with a big overcoat “that undoubtedly concealed knives and guns”, blue eyes, long hair and “enormous boots.” Other writers suggest that successful pishtacos wear clothes made from the skins of their victims and can also be identified by the peculiar, western devices that they use – cars and cameras, tape recorders, MP3 players and so on. They are voracious, preferring human flesh when it can be got, drinking large quantities of milk, and are notorious rapists. On occasion they allow their female victims live in order to give birth to pishtacquitos, who grow up to accompany their father on his travels.
The most comprehensive book on the subject, a compilation of folklore published in Spanish by Juan Ansión as Pishtacos: De Verdugos a Sacaojos (Lima: Tarea, 1989), argues that the genesis of the legend goes back several centuries, and may pre-date the Spanish conquest. The sixteenth century Peruvian chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, who wrote on the appalling treatment meted out to South America’s indigenous peoples (and drew – he was a remarkable artist [his depiction of a wizard consorting with the devil can be seen left]), describes a variety of sorcerer who mixed human fat with gold and feathers to cast spells. On the other hand, Catharine Stimpson of New York University, who contributes an introduction to Weismantel’s book, points out that
the exact representation of the pishtaco has varied over time. Its origin may have been the practice of colonizing Spanish soldiers who took Indian fat to help heal their wounds. In the eighteenth century, the pishtaco appeared as a priest with a knife, and then evolved into a man on horseback or in a powerful car. During the economic crisis of the 1980s, when rural residents immigrated to urban centers, the pishtaco reappeared as the sacojos, white medical technicians in dark suits who steal and dismember children.
This ties in well not only with the common modern legend of the organ-snatcher but with other bits of commentary; it is mentioned, for example, that the pishtaco‘s purpose has evolved over the years, so that now their main aim is to sell fat to the government, which exports it to help write down the enormous foreign loans that burden the country. Looked at from this perspective, the legend might be seen as a creation of an indigenous people who see themselves, almost literally, as cogs in their conquerors’ machine (the fat, Gonzalez Montes says, is required to ensure there is no interruption to “the rhythm and continuity of the production process”), though perhaps fear of the changes to traditional peasant life wrought by industrialisation also played its part.
Anyway, since the term has become so debased of late, and with relatively little information about the pishtacos readily available, it seems worth repeating my original FT article here, if only for the purpose of comparison. Here, then, is the legend of the pishtacos as it appeared in print two decades ago, at a time when Peru was far more troubled than it is today:
Bogeymen Haunt Peru
The word is out in the remote hamlets of the Peruvian Andes: the pistachos are back. Pistachos are folk-devils, white-skinned men dressed in broad-brimmed hats, greatcoats and riding boots who steal children from the streets at night. As described by the local Indians, they greatly resemble the picture of the stereotypical Spanish landowner.
What is interesting about the recent spate of pistacho stories is their location: the bogeymen have come down out of the mountains and sightings have been reported in several major Peruvian cities. An innocent man was beaten to death in Ayacucho, and our source, the Independent of 29 Dec 1987, mentions that the son of a British diplomat narrowly escaped lynching, in some indeterminate place, at some time or another.
Anthropologists suggest that the current endemic unrest in Peru – where a bloody state of near-war exists between the authorities and Maoist ‘Shining Path’ guerillas – may account for the return of the pistachos. Others say that the Army puts such stories about in the hope that outsiders in a community may be attacked… but there is yet a third hypothesis, which suggests that the Shining Path are behind the tales, which are spread to encourage people to attack the army foot soldiers who are the only (mortal) figures to be been after dark in most Peruvian towns.
A footnote [November 22]
Widespread press coverage of the Peruvian murder gang and its activities over the past two days has thrown up some interesting additional information. For one thing, according to the gang members detained by the local police, their group has been in existence for a surprisingly long time. The pishtacos’ leader, Hilario Cudeña, 56 – who some reports state has been arrested, but most seem to agree remains at large – is said to have been involved in the fat trade for the past three decades. Equally intriguing is the widespread disbelief in the scientific community that there can be any sort of market in human fat. For one thing, the rendering methods described by the captured gang members are so lo-tech that the product (which might theoretically have some applications in filling and plumping products) would be dangerously impure. (The pishtacos, we learn, worked “by removing the head, arms, legs and organs, then suspending the bodies above candles to allow the fat to drip down into tubs”.) For another, our increasingly obese society produces such vast quantities of surplus First World fat, extracted via liposuction, that it’s hard to imagine that there could be demand for relatively tiny quantities of South American product; indeed, the gallons of fat extracted from patients every day is thrown away precisely because there is no viable use for it, and – and, as The Independent points out – “given the cosmetic surgery industry’s reputation for spotting new business opportunities, if they could make $6 a gallon on it, never mind $60,000, they would be unlikely to pass it up.” Thirdly, doctors who do implant fat in human bodies use cells extracted from the patients in order to avoid problems with immune response – think lip-plumping collagen injections made with fat extracted from the patient’s buttocks. Finally, it strikes me that if this gang of pishtacos have been at work in Peru since the late 1970s, their activities long predate the development of modern fat-implanting plastic surgery technologies, rendering it highly questionable whether the motive for the killings – originally at least – had anything to do with supplying the demands of cosmetic surgeons.
All this, I suspect, leaves open the distinct possibility that (assuming the Peruvian police have the story straight at all) these modern pishtacos did not acquire their nickname from a mere coincidental resemblance to beings from an old Andean legend. It seems considerably more likely that Peru’s new fat-stealers have spent the past 30 years or so quite consciously apeing the bogeymen’s reputed modus operandi, for reasons that are no doubt horrifying, but which at present still elude us.