Parts of this chapter were taken from the Expat Chronicles article, Scopolamine in Colombia.
The first time Christopher learned about scopolamine, he was drinking at a lawyer’s house near Calle 100. There was plenty of food and aguardiente. Christopher left the party early in the evening and came back to Chapinero. He met a group of people drinking on Avenida Caracas. The last thing he remembers is kissing one of the girls in the group.
The next day Christopher woke up in a blanket, completely nude, in his apartment. The apartment, which was fully furnished and decorated the previous day, was bare. It had been cleared out. The only things in the apartment were Christopher and the blanket.
Christopher learned from one of his neighbors a couple days later that whoever robbed him had rented a van to get everything out. More unbelievably, Christopher helped them load the van. The neighbor assumed they were friends. This was Christopher’s introduction to scopolamine in Colombia.
Scopolamine, known as “burundanga” in the underworld, is a powerful sedative extracted from the Brugmansia flower, which grows wild in Colombia. It is said that taking a nap under a Brugmansia tree will yield a buzz upon waking.
Scopolamine is used as a central nervous system depressant to treat nausea and motion sickness. It is attracting attention for its potential in treating addiction, specifically nicotine. Side effects include dry mouth, impaired speech, amnesia, excitement and restlessness, hallucinations, and delirium. Nazi scientists and Cold War intelligence agencies experimented with scopolamine as a truth drug.
Scopolamine’s most common use, however, is to facilitate robbery and assault in Colombia. Gangs of thieves prey on unsuspecting victims by drugging them and taking advantage once they are under the influence. Scopolamine renders victims open to suggestion, and its amnesic effects make it impossible to remember what happened. While “open to suggestion,” victims willingly give their credit cards and PIN numbers to their assailants. Christopher helped a gang take everything he owned.
The Embassy continues to receive reports of criminals in Colombia using disabling drugs, including scopolamine, to temporarily incapacitate unsuspecting victims. Perpetrators may offer tainted drinks, cigarettes or gum at bars, restaurants, and other public areas, especially those that cater to sexual tourism. 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.
The prevalence of scopolamine use, the devastating losses in scopolamine robberies, and the victims’ inability to remember what happened have combined to spawn various myths and urban legend, all of which were popularized in the VICE documentary, Colombian Devil’s Breath:
One urban legend is that scopolamine can be blown in someone’s face, like magic dust, to render them submissive. Another says thieves put it on the buttons of ATM machines, or that sex workers strategically place it on their skin to be ingested by unwitting men. The majority of confirmed cases, however, can be traced to drinking. Scopolamine gangs work in bars and clubs, but they mostly work in brothels and red light districts.
It is a common story in Colombia for somebody to be drinking and make friends with a new group of people. The next morning he wakes up on a park bench barefoot with nothing in his pockets. Having the apartment cleared out, as Christopher did for his first experience, is the most extreme loss.
Christopher and Arthur took Sinead, Christopher’s daughter with Cristina, for lunch at a country restaurant just north of Bogotá. With lunch, they drank a few rounds of beer with a bottle of aguardiente. After eating, Christopher and Arthur paid the bill and left.
In retrospect, Christopher claims there was a dodgy atmosphere at the restaurant. They took a taxi down to Parque 93, which today is the heart of wealth in Bogotá, but at that time was not a fashionable neighborhood. As soon as they got in the taxi, Arthur exclaimed to Christopher, “Everything is white, everything is WHITE!” Then he started kissing Christopher on the cheek. Then everything went white in Christopher’s eyes.
The cab driver kicked them out of his taxi. Christopher does not remember many details, only bits and pieces. There was a heavy rainstorm, and at one point Christopher and Arthur were crawling under a bus to avoid getting wet. The bus driver shooed them out from under the bus. Christopher and Arthur got the urge to visit Anapoima. That was when Christopher remembered the baby. Where was the baby?
The next morning Christopher woke up in the hospital. An employee from the British embassy, with police present, asked him questions, mostly related to the baby. Christopher’s memories came in waves. Even the high returns in short spurts. Christopher ultimately learned that he and Arthur had dropped the baby off at the babysitter’s, then picked it up a short time later. At some point they made a scene in front of police. The baby was taken away and they were brought to the hospital.
Christopher describes scopolamine as what sounds like an extreme ecstasy experience. You are in love with everything and everybody. Everything is peace and love. No evil. This all comes with nearly impenetrable amnesia.
In Christopher’s words:
I’ve been given burundanga many many many times. Ye know burundanga effects, “Ye like my watch? Go ahead and take it.” Ye just give it away. And then in the morning the memory has gone.
Usually the whores have it.
I’ve been scoped at least twenty times. Many times they take anything of value. But then again sometimes they take everything. Maybe five or six times they got the apartment. It was gettin kinda common. I started taking precautions against it. I stopped leavin me drink around, holdin me bottle, not lettin anybody slip me a mickey from any direction.
I think the burundanga has burned many of my brain cells. If I drink aguardiente or whiskey, I can feel that in my head. The burundanga has done that.
I think it’s a controlled item now. It’s not so easy to get. It was never easy to get, it’s difficult difficult difficult. I know all the baddies, the underworld, and I’d have a hard time gettin it.