In pop culture, we see vampires in various ways. There's the brooding, cursed kind who has a tendency to be a bit obsessive at times. The monsters with pointy ears and long claws who live in castles and steal guy's wives. As of now, they are seen as fast, romanticized and glittery or sleep in coffins and sips synthetic blood from bottles. However in parts of South America, another type of vampire tale is told. People talk of the fearsome Pishtacos, shadowy pale-skinned figures who stalk peasants along dark roads, kill them and drain them of their fat. These stories date back about 400 years. The first mentioning of this creature was by the priest Cristóbal de Molina, a scholar of native languages and Incan culture in 1571. He described natives living around Cuzco wouldn't deliver firewood to a Spanish home for fear of being killed and having their fat used as a remedy for some foreign disease.
The tale of the pishtaco seems to change with each generation. His wardrobe is rather diverse—a belted tunic, a leather jacket, a Franciscan robe, a khaki shirt and matching pants. He supposedly has white skin, although sometimes it's black, and every once in a while he's a mestizo or a full-blooded Indian. For the most part, the pishtaco works at night, stalking his victims on mountain paths, dazzling them with magic powder, and plundering their bodies for tallow and grease. His more classical form has him wearing high boots and a felt hat, with a curved knife and a lasso made of human skin. He's handsome, with green eyes, long hair, and an unkempt beard. The vampire is believed to also present his victims with the back of his hand. His fingers then fall off, one by one, and wriggle like worms in the dirt—a sight so disturbing to mortal men that they become immobilized. Then they're dismembered.
About a year ago, police arrested three suspects operating deep within the jungle highlands of Peru. While searching the area, they made some gruesome discoveries: a pile of human ribs and thighbones, a decomposing human head (the victim's identity was determined), and yes, two plastic Coke bottles filled with what appeared to be human fat. It was believed the gang would confront people along the quiet back roads, lure them to their laboratory with a promise of employment, bludgeon them to death, and dismember them. Then, using candles, render the fat out of the body, capturing it in a basin below. While three were in custody, six more were still at large. Sounds like a story confirming one of South American's worse fears. But if they weren't Pishtacos, why bottle human fat?
The first assumption the police claimed was they were selling the fat to cosmetic companies to be used in anti-aging creams. According to the BBC, the liquid fat went for $15,000 per liter from a pair of Italian Mafiosi serving as intermediaries to the European cosmetics industry. It was to be used for a line of skin softeners. The criminals themselves claimed they were selling it to local shamans to be used in satanic rituals. Inconsistencies in the investigation lead to hints of a cover-up. Could it all have been a hoax?
People were having problems believing in selling human fat on the black market due to its availability leaving no real need for it. The police stated the gang was responsible for the murders of at least 60 people despite only having evidence of one. Three days before the pishtaco arrests were announced, investigative journalist Ricardo Uceda published a startling exposé about a government-sponsored death squad in the northern city of Trujillo. Officers there had engaged in the systematic execution of 46 suspected criminals, he wrote, dating back to 2007. Peru's interior minister, Octavio Salazar use to be in charge of the police unit in Trujillo. The whole story of the alleged Pishtacos had unraveled in a matter of days. In a radio interview, the governor of Huánuco called it "una falsedad más grande que el universo entero" or "The Biggest lie in the Universe."
Is the legend of the Pishtacos true or just stories passed down from one generation to the next? We may never know.