Tales of travellers being drugged and waking days later to find their wallets and passports gone, or worse still, bank accounts cleaned out, seem at first too lurid to be true; perhaps just another urban myth. I thought so too, until I came across a first-hand account. What makes this so compelling is how easily it happened.
Have you heard of burundanga? Or devil’s breath? Scopolamine or hyoscine? The chemical is the same, and produced in a range of nightshade plants, the most commonly grown around the world being Angel's trumpet. The large, pendulous flowers are gorgeous, but they hide a deadly secret.
A similar looking plant, considered the most potent source of all, is Methysticodendron amesianum (Culebra Borrachero), which has white, trumpet-shaped flowers, although it is less commonly cultivated as a garden plant.
There are traditional tales about it use, to drug wives and children of the Chibchas chieftains of Colombia, in ancient times. Stupefied in this way, the family members became easy to bury alive with their dead husband or father. Today the chemical is associated with robbery in Colombia and stories about zombie-like individuals, controlled for days on end, unable to withstand the urging of their captors.
It is the dried seeds from the large seedpods of these types of plants that are of most interest. Ground to a powder, they contain large quantities of the drug. But what has this to do with the first-hand account; with Greg's story? Well, boarding a bus in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, Greg had no idea what he was about to encounter. Relaxed at the end of his stay, he was now leaving for Peru, and on to Argentina, with all his belongings. He took a deep breath and relaxed into the seat.
The bus was crowded and hot, and after a short while Greg began to doze. An elbow nudged him into partial wakefulness. A fellow passenger was offering him a biscuit. It seemed rude to decline, especially since they would be sitting together for the duration of this long trip. So, still half asleep, Greg smiled, took the biscuit, and ate it, then resumed his doze. The next thing he knew, he woke in a hospital bed, hooked up to a bag of fluid by an IV line.
This was Ibagué, 200 km west of Bogotá by road, and the emergency department of one of the three hospitals in the town. Two days had past, and he had no memory since eating that biscuit.
Staff fetched a doctor who spoke English. Finally, some answers arrived for Greg. The drugging was common; they saw lots of cases. This one had been an almost fatal dose of burundanga: the gangs did not care what happened to their victims. Their task was to remove resistance as quickly and quietly as possible, take the money, passport and possessions, and abandon the victim.
The aftereffects left Greg disorientated and groggy, with only the clothes he was wearing at the time of the bus trip. He had no money at all. Kindly, the staff came up with a ticket to get him on a bus back to Bogotá. There, he returned to the hostel he had been saying in. The owner, who knew him well, took one look, gave him a bed, and instructed him to sleep it off for a day or two.
After obtaining a new passport, and safely back in Australia, Greg contacted the owner to thank him. It was then that he discovered this good Samaritan had suffered an episode in his own family shortly after Greg left: returning home in the city one day, his son-in-law found the door open, his wife and child asleep (drugged), and the house completely empty. All their valuables were gone, including every piece of furniture. This gang had even taken the refrigerator.
Scopolamine is odourless and tasteless. There is no way to know you have been dosed except for the effect, which is similar to that achieved by taking the well-known benzodiazepines, Valium and Xanax: sedation, muscle relaxation, lack of worry or anxiety, and loss of memory. In some cases these two drugs are even used instead of burundanga, since they can be easier for crime gangs to obtain, but there are differences. Scopolamine acts in seconds; Xanax takes from 15 minutes to an hour to take effect. Either way, overdoes from scolopamine and Xanax can both kill.
Symptoms of too great a dose include rapid and shallow heartbeat, or missing beats, elevated body temperature, dry skin, dilated pupils, hallucination, loss of connection with reality, seizures, and, in the final stage, coma. But what of those stories about people losing their willpower and becoming zombie-like under lower doses? Well, there may be a scientific explanation for this: imaging of the brain under a dose of scopolamine shows that its regional activity mimics the brains of those with Alzheimer's disease.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb