UPDATE 2010 – I’ve heard reports of scopolamine robberies in Thailand, sex tourism capital of the world.
Scopolamine, also known as Burundanga, is a powerful sedative extracted from the Brugmansia flower native to Colombia. Scopolamine is used as a central nervous system depressant to treat nausea, motion sickness, and increasingly for Parkinson’s symptoms and in anesthesia. It’s attracting attention for its potential in treating addiction, specifically nicotine.
Scopolamine comes with a slew of side effects including dry mouth, impaired speech, amnesia, excitement and restlessness, hallucinations, and delirium. Years ago it was used to induce Twilight Sleep, which relieves pain during childbirth while keeping the patient awake. Scopolamine was studied by the Nazis and Cold War intelligence agencies as a truth drug. In rare cases scopolamine is used as a recreational drug. The chemical extract is highly toxic, so non-medical use is dangerous. The prescribed uses call for as little as 330 micrograms.
Scopolamine’s most common use is for robbery and assault in Colombia. The extent to its damage is endemic – 1 of 5 emergency room visits are due to scopolamine overdose. Organized thieves prey on unsuspecting victims by drugging them and taking advantage once they’re under the influence. I started hearing horror stories as soon as I arrived. It makes people open to suggestion, and its amnesic effects make it easy to get away with robbery and/or rape.
Some stories are ridiculous. One of those idiot chain emails forwarded around last year told a story of an American woman incapacitated and robbed by accepting a business card brushed with scopolamine. Here’s Snopes debunking that nonsense. The urban legend’s epitomized in the popular VBS documentary, Colombian Devil’s Breath.
After watching that documentary I was curious. My natural skeptic didn’t buy it. It’s true a tiny amount is enough to take effect, but I don’t believe some of the reported methods of drugging victims. The most unbelievable is the taxi driver blowing it in your face, after which you’re immediately in a hypnotic trance at his mercy. I also heard about people getting it into their skin from reading magazines in the back of a taxi and, most ridiculously, via ATM machine buttons.
I asked some Colombians about scopolamine. Most echoed the urban legend fodder. One girl said her cousin was taking a bus from Girardot and somebody offered him a cigarette. The next thing he knew he was in a park with no money. Another told me he was drunk in a taxi. All of a sudden the driver had some thugs around the car and they beat him up and took his money. I told him he didn’t get drugged and robbed. He got beat the fuck up and robbed. That’s not a scopolamine story.
Here are scopolamine stories I believe:
An Irish guy met a girl and they made plans to hang out. He met her and her friends at a bar. He was drinking with them and that’s all he remembered. He woke up in his hotel room with nothing in his pockets. He called to bitch her out and she hung up on him. She called back a few days later, saying how insulted she was and that she would never do that. She said he left her and her friends at the bar and she didn’t know where he went. He seemed to believe her story. I never saw him again, but I hope he didn’t hang out with her again.
I met an AA guy who’s tipping point came in Medellin, after partying in a brothel and waking up the next day in a run-down motel with no money and no clothes. He tried to leave but the motel staff told him he had to pay for the room. They didn’t care about his story. He had no recollection of what happened.
I found a Reuters story about a Colombian woman who was found wandering topless in Bogota, asking about her baby. Police believe an infant-trafficking gang was responsible. The story’s no longer on the Reuters site. I emailed Phillip Stewart on Reuters (the name on the byline) to ask if he wrote the story. His reply:
I met that poor woman years ago and never forgot it. Yes I wrote it.
A Canadian traveler told me a story from Medellin’s Parque Lleras. He and a friend were drinking beer and aguardiente with a couple Colombians they met. Once drunk his friend was put into the back of a cop car while breaking up a fight. The friend confirmed to our Canadian traveler that he saw him get into a Mercedes with the two Colombians they were drinking with. He woke up the next day in Envigado, broke. A Colombian doctor confirmed the symptoms of having taken scopolamine.
Of course there’s feedback from The Mick, who spent 20+ alcoholic years in Bogota. There’s a horrible prostitution and drug zone near 7 de agosto. He says he hates those people because they always gave him scopolamine. He said he’s been drugged at least 30 times. He took some heavy losses but believes scopolamine didn’t affect him as much because he was such an extreme alcoholic and drug user.
The first time The Mick was “scoped” came soon after having a baby with his first ex. He was on a road trip with a friend when they stopped for lunch and a drink. They dropped the baby off at a day-care and started pounding beer and aguardiente. They hopped into a taxi and The Mick clearly remembers his friend saying, “Everything’s gone white! It’s like we’re in heaven!” Then The Mick fell under the spell (the campesinos at the tienda drugged them.)
The taxi driver kicked them out of his cab. The Mick was crawling in the street, at one point crawling under a bus. They remembered the baby and made it back to the day-care. They were stumbling while carrying the baby, and eventually made a scene in front of police. The Mick woke up in the British Embassy.
Another time he was drinking hard and heavy in the Bogota streets, bouncing around various street crowds. Then he was kissing some girl. Then he woke up in his apartment wrapped in a blanket. The apartment was cleared out. He went to the police station naked. He learned the next day they rented a van to clear him out.
The open-to-suggestibility aspect is the scariest. You consciously allow thieves to take everything? It seems too crazy to believe. The Mick describes the buzz as an extreme form of the ecstasy high. You’re in love with everything and everybody. Everything’s peace and love. No evil. This all comes with nearly impenetrable amnesia.
From the Crime section on the US State Department’s Colombia page:
Use of disabling drugs: The Embassy continues to receive reports of criminals in Colombia using disabling drugs to temporarily incapacitate tourists and others. At bars, restaurants, and other public areas, perpetrators may offer tainted drinks, cigarettes, or gum. Typically, victims become disoriented or unconscious, and are thus vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault, and other crimes. Avoid leaving food or drinks unattended at a bar or restaurant, and be suspicious if a stranger offers you something to eat or drink.
Scopolamine is a risk but the urban legends are rampant. The amnesia effect adds to the myth. If nobody remembers what happened, it slows our learning how this drug is used. Anybody who’s taken it doesn’t know how they took because they didn’t see it – the obvious intent of the thieves.
Some stories are silly. One says women rub it on their breasts and have guys lick them. That would render the skin-absorption through magazines or ATM buttons bullshit because the whore would get drugged. Similarly, blowing the powder at the mark’s face exposes the thief just as much as the mark. And if you’ve ever snorted coke, you know how far powder has to go to enter the bloodstream. You don’t need as many micro-grains of scopolamine, but you’d still have to snort it through a tube (as if mixed with cocaine). You won’t catch enough molecules out of the air with a casual nasal inhale unless somebody pelts you in the face with a snowball of it.
Scopolamine cases come from spiking drinks or mixing it with cocaine. And most scopolamine bandits operate in brothels, which adds to the urban legend. First, the amnesia effect completely confuses the victim as to what happened. He remembers he was at the brothel, and he knows he can’t tell his wife that. He realizes he was drugged and decides to tell her one of these bullshit stories about the taxi driver blowing magic dust or passing him a tainted copy of El Tiempo. I’m convinced the urban legends are due to (A) the amnesiac effect and (B) guys lying to their wives, girlfriends, and female relatives to cover up their indiscretions.
What happened to the Irish guy is as elaborate as the scams get. A gringo just arrives to Latin America. He’s still living in La Candelaria and doesn’t recognize the difference in women that are easy and too easy. They lure him out to their neighborhood to drink. The bartender might be in on the operation. They slip him a mickey. Whenever they spot the effects, they get everything in his pockets and then put him in a taxi back to La Candelaria. In case he calls back, they play innocent and try to get him again.
I was skeptical about the open-to-suggestibility aspect. But the VBS film showed bank footage of a victim at the ATM fetching cash for his robbers. Plus The Mick’s hazy recollections of a hyper-ecstasy pill high make a strong case for how that can happen.
Most Colombians haven’t been “scoped.” Almost every story I’ve heard involves reckless drinking. Not just drinking, reckless drinking. Colombia can be tough on a drunk. And while stories of victims who were not drinking recklessly are rare, there are a few. (But even most of those are guys lying to females about the night they went to bang whores).
Colombia is a country with abundant beauty, attraction, and romance, but it comes with an equally dangerous and bloody risk. The rose comes with thorns.
The Brugmansia flower, which contains the main ingredient in scopolamine and grows wild throughout Colombia.