The horrible story of “The cannibals of Patagonia”: the gang that ate more than a hundred people

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Several members of the gang of cannibals arrested and a policeman in a light uniform guarding them.  From the left Pedro Vila, captains Alberto Maripe, Hilario Castro, Juan Carrillo.  Photos: guioteca.com
Several members of the gang of cannibals arrested and a policeman in a light uniform guarding them. From the left Pedro Vila, captains Alberto Maripe, Hilario Castro, Juan Carrillo. Photos: guioteca.com

At the beginning of the last century, the Patagonia region was the epicenter of a rugged and horrible history that was recorded in ancient chronicles as “The Massacre of the Turks”, as its main victims were local merchants. Arab who fell into the clutches of a gang of cannibal thieves who ate his heart and genitalia never to be discovered.

The events were recorded in the Historical Archive of the Province of Río Negro, and have been recounted in pieces over the years by mainly Argentine media and by the journalist Walter Raymond who dedicated himself to reliving the shocking story.

“The massacre of the Turks” occurred between 1904 and 1909 and its death toll, according to the records of the officer who investigated it, was about 130 victims, the vast majority of them of Syrian-Lebanese origin, who in those years arrived in quantities to Chile and Argentina seeking to establish themselves in commercial activities.

These transhumant vendors of Arab descent were generically called – and are still called – “Turks”, regardless of the specific place of origin. But they were also called “peddlers” because they had the custom of advertising in the towns or rooms where they arrived by blowing a kind of whistle or “whistle”.

“They were Lebanese as soon as they arrived in the country, leaving from Neuquén and General Roca, in groups of two and three, accompanied by some peons and baquianos, with horses or mules loaded with clothing, cloth and other items”Writer and historian Elías Chucair wrote in a 2009 report.

a "mercachifle" with his cart loaded with merchandise.  Used to be "turks" Syrian-Lebanese, who on entering Patagonia ended up prey to cannibal thieves.
A “peddler” with his wagon loaded with merchandise. They used to be Syrian-Lebanese “Turks” who, on entering Patagonia, ended up prey to cannibal thieves.

“Mercachifles” missing.

The first case of a disappeared “Turk” was reported in April 1909, in the place of El Cuy, in the center of the Río Negro province, north of Argentine Patagonia. A place that in those years had barely a hundred and a half inhabitants.

The complaint was made by a merchant named Salomón El Dahuk (or Eldahuk, depending on the historical source) because one of his “peddlers” named José Elías and the peon who accompanied him (also Arab) Kesen Ezen, had entered Patagonia months ago and they had not been heard from again.

The disappeared José Elías had left General Roca in August 1908, with merchandise from Dahuk, under the pact that he would return before November. This was a common Syrian-Lebanese tradition, who used to help their newcomer countrymen settle down with loaned merchandise so that they could quickly start a profitable business.

The last time they were heard from, they were in a place known as “Lanza Niyeo” and a few weeks later their mules and Elijah’s horse were seen roaming the plateau. This worried Dahuk, as he believed that they might have been killed.

At that time the rumors that “Turks” had been killed in Patagonia had been running for years, since since 1905 the “merchants” who entered the plateau, offering their products in remote villages and estates, had not returned.

Commissioner José Torino and some of his policemen.
Commissioner José Torino and some of his policemen.

Solomon himself, who had a company called El Dahuk (or Eldahuk) Hnos, he had a record of fifty-five street vendors, all of Arab origin, who had not returned to pay their merchandise debt.

Given the magnitude of the complaints, the governor of Río Negro, Carlos Gallardo, appointed the chief of police, José Torino, one of the strictest and strictest bailiffs in the region, to go to the place of the disappearances and investigate what happened. Torino did it and with him he took ten men who knew the climate and the bravery of the region and set out to follow the same path as the peddlers.

A band of cannibals led by a witch

The task proved to be hard, Torino questioned the inhabitants in search of information but although several claimed to have seen the “Turks” pass, no one knew more, nor gave any light on their whereabouts or destination.

The company appeared to be a total failure until they managed to capture a Mapuche who was responsible for several crimes, but who also did not know anything about the disappeared “Turks”. That gave Torino an idea and he decided to go to “Lagunitas”, a place on the route of the merchants near Chile, where he found the confession that would lead his search.

The young Mapuche man he arrested was called Juan Aburto, and he told him that just three days ago they had killed three Syrians in the toldi (hut) of a certain Ramón Sañico. Not only that, on other occasions they had assaulted and killed other Turks who arrived at the place.

When he reached the awning, he did not find the man he was looking for, but he did recover several stolen objects. He was definitely in the right place.

Torino implemented brutal methods to find the gang, captured and tortured anyone he considered suspicious, questionable but effective methods, because in a short time he apprehended almost all of the gang members and collected evidence of their horrible crimes.

This is how the huts of the indigenous inhabitants of Patagonia looked.
This is how the huts of the indigenous inhabitants of Patagonia looked.

Everything was documented in their diaries, especially the references to Antonio Cuece, the leader of the band.

This was a special character because he dressed as a woman and was known by the nickname of “Macagua”, a “machi” – witch or healer – who had turned his gang of robbers and murderers into cannibals.

The members of the band were mostly indigenous Mapuches from Chile, who were dedicated to raising sheep, horses, hunting ostriches and guanacos. But also criminals of the lowest caliber who, in the absence of a police force in the region, had found fertile ground to steal, murder and commit all kinds of crimes.

Their main victims were the “peddlers” who came to the region, whom they invited to distribute roast lamb, wine and other attentions.But as soon as they were careless they were killed, their money, clothes and merchandise they transported stolen.

Under the guidelines of the witch “Macagua”, their hearts, penis, and testicles were removed. With these parts they made amulets for good fortune and success in their criminal endeavors, but they also consumed them in cannibalistic rituals in the belief that it would endow them with virility.

Those parts and others extracted from the corpses of the murdered “Turks” were cooked, roasted and distributed among all the members of the band.

“Before eating a piece of the heart of the Turk José Elías, Julián Muñoz told those present: ‘Before, when I was a captain (a subordinate of an Indian chief) and we knew how to fight with the huincas (white men), we knew how to eat the hearts of Christians; but I’ve never tasted Turkish and now I’m going to know what it tastes like ‘”, says in one of the stories consigned in the Historical Archive of Río Negro.

Left: part of the group led by Torino.  Right: Some of the underage detainees.
Left: part of the group led by Torino. Right: Some of the underage detainees.

Later, what was left of the corpses and belongings were burned and the bones were ground and kept so that the “machi” (witch) could make “gualichos” (spells) with which they avoided being discovered.

According to the testimonies that Torino collected and documented, it was she who led them to cannibalism, as she was in charge of extracting the entrails of the murdered men and cutting their private parts, preparing them and giving them to the rest. Many claimed that they began to consume their victims for fear that “Macagua” would bewitch or curse them, and others said that they ate people because “the others had incited the rest.”

Such was the slaughter, Torino will pick up, that one of the captured told him that he had made a habit of eating “freshly butchered (dead) Turkish fillets” for breakfast.

The hidden powers and the misfortune of Torino

In the four months that the cannibal hunt of Sheriff Torino lasted More than 80 people were captured, all of them accused of being part of the gang that, according to the police chief himself, had killed and consumed about 130 “Turkish” merchants.

But among his captures was not the supposed leader of the gang, the machi “Macagua.” Torino describes her as “An old and dying woman, bedridden with advanced tuberculosis and syphilis, and that is why he did not take her with the rest of the detainees.”

This is how it reads in one of the reports by Walter Raymond made in 2017, who also states that weeks after Torino’s departure, it was learned that the witch was wandering in the desert. When he wanted to re-arrest her, sending a police commission for her, he found on a table a paper signed by a powerful patron of the area in which the commissioner was asked to stop persecuting the woman “because she was a good person and had not done any harm to anyone.”

That was the last that was heard of the machi “Macagua”, or Antonio Cuece, as was his real name, who disappeared after that episode and for years became a legend, a kind of horror that the inhabitants of Patagonia claimed to see wandering the pampas.

The end of which is known was Commissioner Torino, who quickly went from being a hero for dismantling a band of cannibals, to falling from grace for the same reason.

The methods implemented by Torino were not the most ‘friendly’ and many of the prisoners he captured ended up dying in prison as a result of the brutal torture to which they were subjected to force them to confess their crimes, and even, in some cases, to accept blame that was not theirs.

Torino also detained women whom he accused of complicity.  Some ordered that they were not taken to prison, among them was the machi Macagua, who extracted the hearts and genitals of the murdered Turks.
Torino also detained women whom he accused of complicity. Some ordered that they were not taken to prison, among them was the machi Macagua, who extracted the hearts and genitals of the murdered Turks.

All these accusations of abuse of authority and illegal procedures led Torino and his men to confront a four-year-long trial that ended up leading them to be suspended and jailed. None returned to the institution, but most of their defendants regained their freedom shortly after.

Did the “Macagua” spells work? Some might think so, but according to Raymond’s investigations, everything points to the Torino arrests disarming an illegal trade network that exceeded the “captains” detained, even the “machi” herself, and in which politicians participated. hidden and merchants of the region of which it was never certain. One of them was Pablo Berbránez, a “huinca” (white man) of Chilean origin who was the true power behind the witch.

They ran a large network, which moved a lot of money, and Torino had imprisoned the cheap labor of the Mapuche who kept it alive, at the cost of the lives of the Turkish hucksters.

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