Peru's police chief dismissed the head of his criminal investigations unit Tuesday amid suggestions that officers may have invented a story about a murderous gang of human fat thieves, perhaps to distract from allegations of police killings.
Police recently announced they had arrested three members of a murder ring who confessed to killing five people, extracting their fat and selling it to cosmetics companies in Europe.
Medical experts questioned whether such a black market could exist, saying fat taken from the body of another person has no cosmetic or medical value.
The allegations were pushed by investigations chief Gen. Felix Murga and Col. Jorge Mejia, head of the anti-kidnapping unit, who branded the ring the "Pishtacos" after a mythical pre-Colombian figure that killed people for their fat.
Gen. Miguel Hidalgo held a news conference Tuesday to announce Murga's dismissal and said police are conducting an internal probe.
Calls to Mejia's cell phone rang unanswered and police declined to put reporters in contact with Murga.
The macabre tale of the fat gang set off a media storm in Peru. The killers were said to have cut off their victims' heads and limbs, removed the organs and suspended the torsos from hooks above candles that warmed the flesh as fat dripped into tubs below.
Murga and Mejia said fat thieves were believed to be responsible for 30 to 60 disappearances this year in central Huanuco province.
But the La Republica newspaper soon reported that police in Huanuco discounted the fat-stealing theory, saying the allegations made in the capital took them by surprise.
The fact that authorities charged the suspects with drug trafficking in addition to murder, conspiracy and weapons counts, also raised eyebrows.
Former Deputy Interior Minister Carlos Basombrio suggested some police cooked up the story to divert attention from a recently published magazine article alleging police had killed 46 suspects in 2007 and 2008 in the coastal town of Trujillo.
"My hypothesis is that they were mainly trying to cover up the tremendous revelation of extrajudicial killings of criminals in Trujillo made by Ricardo Uceda ... in Poder magazine," Basombrio wrote on the political analysis blog Espacio Compartido.
At the time of the announcement, police showed off two liter-size soda bottles filled with a viscous, yellow fluid they said was seized fat that the suspects claimed was worth $60,000 a gallon ($15,000 a liter).
Authorities also displayed a video of a suspect confessing to killing and quartering victims for fat, along with photos of a decaying head and bones found in the jungle.
Police said the fat was apparently sold to intermediaries in Lima - allegedly two Italian nationals - then shipped to cosmetic companies in Europe.
They could not confirm any sales, however, and could only identify one victim by name.
Medical experts were skeptical, saying human fat is used in anti-wrinkle treatments but is always extracted from the patient being treated. Injecting fat from another person could produce a life-threatening reaction, they said.