The black market in shrunken heads, some of them belonging to foreign tourists, is the back story for the movie Tzantza which opens Friday in theaters in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.
The movie’s producers are being tight-lipped about its content prior to screening, saying only that it is fictionalized but based on true stories.
Although the practice has been denounced by the indigenous communities that once practiced it, modern-day head shrinkers are in it strictly for the money. According to an investigation last year by Ecuador’s National Police, human shrunken heads can fetch as much as $75,000, depending on their origin and the documentation that comes with them.
The international police agency Interpol recovered a black market shrunken head in Belgium in 2018, allegedly from the jungle east of Cuenca, that had been purchased for $100,000. The head, that of the daughter of a prominent German banker, was accompanied with the victim’s passport. The victim, who was traveling alone, was last seen alive in Cuenca as she departed on a jungle tour in February 2018.
According to police, most of the shrunken heads are of Ecuadorians. There are only three known cases of foreigners — including that of the German woman — being victims of the practice. “Most of the heads we have found are of people who lived near their murderers in Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe Provinces,” a 2018 police statement said. The statement continued, noting that proven cases of modern-day head shrinking are extremely rare, with fewer than 20 reported since 2016.
Even if cases are rare, the current practice is considered criminal by the ancestors of those who once practiced it. “Today’s head shrinking is nothing more than murder for money,” says Juan Salazar, a member of the Shuar community in Morona Santiago. “In old times, the elders conducted the practice in strict accordance with the tradition that respected the soul of the person whose head was used. What the murderers do today is nothing more than butchery. These people should be killed or put in prison.”
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