Friday, November 20, 2009

Ñakaq attack

A bizarre story out of Peru today--with the backstory almost entirely missing, and the lede truly buried.

Police say a gang in the Peruvian jungle has been killing people and draining fat from the corpses to sell on the black market for use in cosmetics, although medical experts say they doubt a major market for fat exists.

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.

Col. Mejia said Mr. 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, Col. Mejia said. Among them was the band's alleged leader, Hilario Cudena, 56, who Mr. Castillejos told police has been killing people to extract human fat for more than three decades.


Col. 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 Mr. Castillejos three days later at the same bus station.

And then:

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. [emphasis added]

Here is more--a lot more--about the pishtacos (pistaku), an alternate word for a monstrous figure in folk mythology in Peru: the ñaqak, Quechua for "slaughterer" or "sacrificer". (I'll return to that throwaway word "mythology" below.)

According to anthropologist Peter Gose's 1986 paper "Sacrifice and the Commodity Form in the Andes,"* the
ñaqak is a fearsome figure, very often (but not always) a fair-skinned person residing locally. In the crudest version of the story, the ñaqak lies in wait on country roads to kill unwary travellers, hastens them back to a cave or mineshaft, and hangs them on hooks upside-down, catching their fat in receptacles.

More recently, variants of the tale include the use of a special machine from the US to extract the fat more efficiently. The grease thus collected has several applications: in metallurgy, for lubricating machinery, and in pharmaceuticals. (It is easy to see why a number of commentators have been tempted to see the
ñaqak and his practices as a metaphorical rendition of global capitalism, although Gose, in his dense and complex analysis, disagrees.)

Virtually every visiting ethnographer in rural Peru has at one time or another been suspected of being a
ñaqak. A mestizo truck driver told Gose that he had picked up a Japanese medical student once, who began to make "discrete inquiries" about obtaining human grease in the area.

The first notion of a grease-gathering demon is in fact post-Columbian, emerging during an uprising against the Spanish called the Singing Sickness that occurred in the period 1564-71. The Indians believed that a certain illness had broken out in Spain, and that Spaniards in Peru had been sent to collect their grease as a curative.

Beth A. Conklin, in Consuming Grief: compassionate cannibalism in an Amazonian society, raises the possibility that this could have been grounded to some degree in actual European practices. The consumption of bodily substances for health reasons was commonplace then, although it was never considered "cannibalism." K. Gordon-Grube notes** that the purchase of the fresh blood of prisoners who had died on the scaffold--thought to be a curative for epilepsy--was a feature of the culturescape at the time. And so was the consumption of "mummy," especially from those who had met violent deaths.

But continuing on with the account:

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.”

"It doesn't make any sense at all."
And yet, oddly, it does. There is a perfect blend here of mythology and "reality" in all of these accounts, wherein it becomes impossible to separate out one from the other. Put a different way, the two categories have no "objective," fixed ontological status.

Perhaps the "origin" of the "myth" was a onetime European demand for bodily substances. Perhaps the Japanese medical student was imagined; perhaps he existed, knew of the local tales, and thought there might indeed be a store of human fat around. Perhaps the gang in today's news story believed in the tale enough to recreate it. Perhaps they are innocent, given the implausibility of a black market in human fat.

But there are points, as this story illustrates, at which the useful commonplace distinction we make between myth and fact, between metaphor and "reality," is revealed to be a construct. And it is precisely at such points that we have the opportunity to reflect more fully, and with much less of a sense of certainty, on the human condition.


*Gose, Peter
1986 "Sacrifice and the Commodity Form in the Andes." Man, New Series, v.21:2, 296-310.

**Gordon-Grube, K.
1988 "Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism." American Anthropologist
, v.90, 405-9.


UPDATE: (December 19) Another twist in the tale: "reality" vanishes once again into myth.


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