Peru's big ?fat' lie

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Peru's police chief has suspended a top investigator for saying he had caught a gang who were murdering people to sell their fat. But the macabre tale now appears to be nothing more than a tall story. The BBC's Dan Collyns is in Lima and has been following the saga.

MARCO WERMAN: A couple weeks ago, we told you about an odd story from Peru. A top police investigator there had announced the arrest of four suspects. The charges were gruesome. The men had allegedly murdered dozens of people, and sold their body fat for use in the cosmetics industry. The police called the men Pishtacos in reference to a Peruvian myth about an Andean bogeyman. We consulted Harvard University historian Gary Urton. He was skeptical about the news story, and told us that the myth dated back to the early days of the Spanish conquest.

GARY URTON: It was said that Europeans who came into Peru and came elsewhere into the Andes that one of the things they were looking for was they were looking for body fat to extract from Indians to be used for cosmetics and various purposes like that. In the present day ideas about Pishtacos are very common. In the Andean Highlands, a Pishtaco will find an Indian in an isolated place, leave him on a trail for instance, cut his head off and extract the body fat.

WERMAN: Well, they don't call it a myth for nothing. The BBC's Dan Collyns is in Lima and has been following the story. So Dan, two weeks ago, a police press conference with gorey visual aids, two bottles of what they said was human fat and a photo of a decapitated head. What has happened since?

DAN COLLYNS: Well, that press conference was extraordinary, of course, and it played very much into that myth which the last speaker just referred to about the Pishtacos. What happens two weeks afterwards is apparently there's a complete lack of evidence and it shows that this particular police account was more fiction than fact. And now Peru's Chief of Police, Miguel Hidalgo held a press conference in which he announced the Usedo [PH] Felix Merger, who's the top police investigator who held that press conference about two weeks ago, had been put on indefinite leave from his job for sullying the reputation of his unit and misleading the country by saying that he'd caught a gang of serial killers who were allegedly murdering people in order to sell their fat.

WERMAN: I mean, do they have anybody under arrest for these murders then?

COLLYNS: Well, apparently four people were arrested and they allegedly confessed to murdering what the police said at the time was between 30 and 60 people in order to sell their fat for thousands of dollars a liter to the cosmetics industry. Now this all unraveled, this story, when although there were many initial doubts when the police in the region actually said they knew nothing about these crimes. And they were very surprised that these allegations which were being revealed in a press conference in Lima. They said that they only have evidence related to one of the alleged people who's disappeared, and this is a region where there's a lot of drug trafficking and there's a lot of violence. It does appear that that particular murder may have been linked to drug trafficking.

WERMAN: And who are the victims and why would the police investigator make up this story about ritual flatulence?

COLLYNS: Well, that's the question that everyone's been asking. It seems that he got very carried away with the theory, which he have been told by these suspects, which were arrested, that they were involved in this macabre business of killing people for their fat. It may have been that he completely invented the story. There have always been doubts about this story. And many Peruvians who have said that this is just one of those smoke screens which is intended to distract the general public from other stories, other allegations related to the police or indeed other issues facing Peru. And one hypothesis is that the timing of this particular press conference about the Pishtacos was time to cover up a revelation about extrajudicial killings, which is a result of a journalistic investigation in Trujillo in the north of the country.

WERMAN: The BBC's Dan Collyns speaking with us from Lima. Thank you.

COLLYNS: Thank you, Marco.