Criminals are using narcotics like scopolamine to drug victims so they’ll hand over belongings and money.
Criminals want to turn people into zombies in the Andean nation. In 2012, the National Police counted more than 1,200 cases of intoxication by drugs that depress the central nervous system, such as scopolamine and medications including Lorazepam (marketed as Ativan), Rohypnol, Rivotril, and Sinogan.
The use of large amounts of scopolamine, also known as burundanga, escopalomina or “the Devil’s Breath” can lead to death.
One high-profile case involves the death of former Congressman Octavio Zapata, 76, who was forced to take scopolamine by alleged members of the Los Wong gang on June 25.
The assailants allegedly wanted to knock him unconscious so they could steal his belongings before turning him over to another criminal organization that would demand a ransom from his family for his return.
Zapata, however, regained consciousness from the first dose and started fighting for his freedom, causing the gang members allegedly to give him another dose, which killed him, as reported by Colombian media. Ten days later, his body was found in the Cali River.
Police have arrested six of the alleged gang members in connection with Zapata’s kidnapping and murder.
In Cali, the majority of victims are single men who get their alcoholic drinks spiked while they are talking with women, according to Gen. Fabio Castañeda, the city’s police chief. Sometimes, prescription pills or black-market drugs are combined with scopolamine, putting the victim in a deeper haze.
“These gangs target men to rob, and use women to do so,” Castañeda said. “They usually are very attractive and voluptuous women who speak very well and gain the trust of their victims.”
Foreigners also are targeted by gangs.
“Foreigners should not talk to strangers and especially should not accept objects or alcoholic beverages from them,” Castañeda said. “If you want to meet people, do so through hotels or trustworthy people – and don’t catch a taxi on the street.”
Criminals also use inhalants, including acetone and depressants, which make victims drowsy so they can be given scopolamine orally, Castañeda added.
“We have had cases in which criminals offer magazines to tourists, and when they open them, they inhale the aroma of these drugs and may become intoxicated,” Castañeda said. “If you feel discomfort, dizziness or numbness after coming into contact with someone, you should immediately look for a safe place and notify the police and get medical assistance.”
Scopolamine is a natural alkaloid of the Datura genus, which is highly soluble and extracted from the seeds of the Angel’s Trumpets tree, also called a “Borrachero” tree or a “Cacao Sabanero.” This plant is common in South America’s subtropical areas.
Once it enters the central nervous system, the substance blocks the neurotransmitter responsible for sending information to the part of the brain that stores short-term memory, which is why the victim doesn’t remember anything after consuming it.
“Moreover, scopolamine interacts with other neurotransmitters in the human brain causing a loss of free will and heightened suggestibility,” said Camilo Uribe, head of toxicology at San José Hospital in Bogotá.
“The three effects leave the victim at the mercy of the criminal. It is what might be called a ‘chemical hypnosis.’”
During the first two hours of intoxication with scopolamine, the victim appears completely normal before possibly becoming more aggressive. If mixed with alcohol, scopolamine can cause a heart attack or serious cardiac arrhythmias, according to Jairo Téllez, coordinator of the Toxicology Program at the National University of Colombia.
The Paseo Millonario
Criminals use scopolamine in what’s called the “paseo milionario'”(millionaire tour), where victims are drugged so they’ll hand over their belongings and bank cards, which assailants use to withdraw money at automated teller machines.
On the night of May 3, Andrés Gómez, 29, was partying with friends at a club in the T-Zone, north of Bogotá, when four women invited them for drinks.
“I didn’t want to, but these women actually were very pretty and seemed polite,” Gómez, an architect, said. “I left my drink on the table and went to dance. Then, I drank a little more, and went out to smoke. From that point on, I don’t remember anything else.”
Sixteen hours later, he woke up in a pasture, with a headache, very thirsty and without his belongings. A man he’d never met took him to the hospital, where it was determined he had ingested scopolamine.
“My friends told my mother that I had gone on my own in a taxi with other friends. I do not remember any of that,” he said. “I only know, because of the transactions made, that the taxi took me to withdraw money at various ATMs until both of my bank accounts were empty. I gave them my IPhone, my wallet, my watch and my computer.”