Spiked by Scopolamine (The Devils Breath) in Bogota…
“and that was the last thing I remember…I’d been spiked by Scopolamine”
Scopolamine spiking’s or (“Devils Breath” to use its sinister, headline-friendly street name) are apparently at pandemic level in Colombia with some sources even claiming that 1 in 5 casualty admissions in Bogotá are now owing to the drug (although a closer look qualifies this as, at most, 1 in 5 poisoning cases rather than 1 in 5 of all cases).
The “most dangerous drug in the world” purportedly renders its victim conscious but utterly suggestable effectively turning them into “Zombies” who will do whatever they are told. Common stories involve drugged tourists handing over their pin numbers, affected householders physically helping criminals clear out their homes (and even helping them to disassemble Ikea furniture) and most harrowingly, spiked women giving up their own children to human traffickers.
Before I travelled to Colombia I heard these stories and crazy cautionary tales from the internet, from TV documentaries and even from my concerned Grandmother. Frankly, some of the tales seemed purely fantastical and plain ridiculous (been drugged through your fingertips via a laced newspaper or spiked by a women’s cleavage?! Come on…) but the ones about spiked drinks, cigarettes, and bags of a certain famous illegal Colombian export were far more plausible.
Therefore whilst I did try to heed due to caution I wasn’t overly troubled or paranoid because put simply you hear these stories but you never really think it will happen to you and besides that, I felt that the real dangers awaiting me in Bogotá would be pneumonia from its endless rain and its legendarily chaotic traffic. I would soon learn.
At the time it happened I had been in Colombia nearly 3 months, had taught English in Cartegana and trekked the deepest darkest jungles, with the only incidents of concern been the occasional run-in with the Police and a certain incident that had occurred in the Antiochian jungle two weeks earlier. I had therefore grown pretty confident; I felt like something of a veteran and that the warnings only applied to fresh-faced Gringo’s straight off the plane. Maybe this was my undoing or maybe it was just that my luck ran out.
Sabado en la Noche
It was Saturday night and I was in the mood for dancing, chancing and a bit of romancing but like any good Englishman I would first need to get very drunk. I was staying at a cool hostel in North Bogota near the “Zona Rosa” and decided to head out with a Brazilian traveller who was sharing my dormitory. It was still too early to hit the bars and clubs so we agreed to visit the Falabella supermarket, buy a few beers and a (cheeky?) bottle of tequila which we could drink in the city square whilst watching the traffic of life roll by.
We were on maybe our second drink when we were joined by 2 locals who like us were also hanging in the square. They had just finished work in some God awful sounding call centre and were still dressed in their drab, cheap looking suits. They had evidently been drinking substantially longer than we had and they passed a large, round, half-empty bottle of bottom shelf whiskey back and forth between them. Somehow I wasn’t sure about them but my better nature, liberal tendency to challenge one’s own prejudices and above all my inherent British politeness urged me to give them a chance.
As our discussions progressed it became apparent that they were here drowning sorrows, they were cousins and the younger of the 2 had had his heart broken on New Year’s Eve when he had learned that his fiancé was sleeping with another cousin. His eyes welled up and tears streamed down his face as he told the tale; his anguish seemed almost tangible. The bigger and older of the two was just plain angry, raging against the female species, assuring his cousin that all women were the same and advising that what he needed to do now was go and find himself a hooker.
I offered my commiserations. We drank to male solidarity and broken hearts as we shared our bottle of tequila with them. After maybe 30 minutes I decided it was time to leave, the night was fast cooling, we had other places to be and besides that I still wasn’t too sure about these guys. We stood up to leave but my companion struggled to keep his balance, swaying everywhere and slurring his words. “My God,” I thought to myself “He’s only had a few drinks, what a lightweight!” There was no way he could stay out in such a condition especially in a place with a reputation like Bogotá. I hailed him a taxi, put him in, handed the driver the address of the hostel and paid him considerably more than he would need to carry him the short distance home. Maybe I should have gone with him.
By this time I was ready to head to Armando Records. The 2 newcomers, on the other hand, were now imploring me to come with them to find some “chicas” by which I think they meant come and find a brothel. After careful consideration, I declined their tempting offer, thanked them for their time and bid them farewell before heading off in the opposite direction to them towards Armando Records. That’s the last thing I remember from that night.
…I awoke with a fitful start. I was in a strange room in a strange bed. Beside me was a familiar woman, my friend Maffe who I had last seen a month earlier in Cartagena when we had agreed not to see each other anymore. Despite my complete confusion, I knew exactly what had happened and that I had been spiked; drugged with Scopolamine by the 2 guys from Falabella. I asked Maffe what had happened and how I came to be here. Apparently, she had received a phone call from my phone at around midnight some kind-hearted reveler had found me outside Armando Records in a confused state and bleeding from above my left eye. He had taken my phone from out of my pocket and rather than stealing it, he called the only local number in my phonebook. Maffe had, of course, answered the call and came to get me.
Apparently, we had first returned to my hostel. She then took me to a hospital which refused to treat me without proof of insurance before returning to hers where she cleaned and fastened my wound herself using an old folk method (which worked fine and saved me a $500 medical insurance claim). I had absolutely no memory of any of it.
It was 2 in the afternoon and I had lost 12 – 16 hours. I got out of bed and checked my pants. My phone, my wallet and my cash was all still there. Wow. That night I stayed at Maffe’s house and ended up sleeping all the next day. My memory of those first aftermath days is still a little patchy and for the next week I was tired, had little appetite and vomited quite a few times. My eye however healed up very nicely.
As for my Brazilian roommate, despite my pretty clear instructions to the cab driver he ended up at the arse end of the city some 40 blocks from where he should have been and was eventually picked up by the police in a confused state. His iPhone had been taken but we will never know for certain whether it was by our 2 amigos, the taxi driver or even the police. We compared notes and tried to figure out how exactly they had dosed us, they must have slipped it into our bottle of tequila after we passed it along to them (that’s what you get for sharing…).
What Might Have Been
It scares me to think what might have happened to me that night alone and drugged in Colombia (In Bogotá the traffic alone is dangerous enough.) I thank the kindness of strangers and the good grace of the guy who found me and called Maffe. I thank Maffe who dropped everything to come and get me despite the terms we had last parted on. I also thank that other indefinable, unquantifiable factor that some call luck or fortune, others serendipity or circumstance and others God. Most victims of Scopolamine spiking’s wake up in gutters, hospitals or police cells minus their phones, credit cards and cash. I, however, woke up safe and warm in bed with a beautiful woman, a situation I would most definitely have tried but most probably failed to engineer that evening had I remained compos mentis!
I then spent the next week (my last week in Colombia) with Maffe and had an incredible time with her. Therefore in a twisted roundabout bay I’m grateful for the experience and if nothing else it has given me something else to write about which will no doubt generate at least 2 Facebook likes or Twitter shares which is pretty much all I have to live for these days back in England.
Scopolamine; facts, fiction, and opinion
Scopolamine, The Devils Breath, is made from the white, seductive flowers of the Borachero (get you drunk) tree which is very common in the forests and even gardens of Colombia. It’s ground into a powder which is then discreetly administered to victims. As Scopolamine is a powerful amnesiac victim can never clearly recall precisely how it was administered to them or just what happened when under its influence. This has led to a plethora of urban myths as well as some unsettling and some frankly odd victim accounts. One very popular myth is that it can simply be blown into a victims face rendering them immediately under its influence. However this is extremely dubious as (1) most of the dose would be lost in the air (or blown back at the assailant…) rendering it ineffective and (2) if a stranger blew a mysterious powder into your face you’d get the hell away from them immediately rather than hang around for the 5 or so minutes it takes for the drug to take effect.
The substance has found favour with criminals firstly because it apparently erodes free will making victims very suggestible and therefore easy to rob, or in some cases, rape. Indeed there are stories of victims freely handing over their bank cards and pin codes to bandits or even helping them clear out their homes (but of course few of the victims can actually firmly verify this). Secondly, the victims are then generally unable to remember anything that has happened making it very hard to prosecute (or seek redress themselves which is not uncommon in Colombia).
Some reports say that the chemical acts as a hallucinogenic and a euphoric although again its uncertain as to how the hell anybody can actually know this.
I’m not entirely sure my experience (which I can’t remember) tallies with any of these. Firstly the criminals clearly failed in any attempt to rob me, I mean they didn’t even get my phone let alone my pin number! Perhaps the cut on my eye suggests a scuffle took place which would contradict the agreeability theory. Maffe said that whilst under its influence I was at times very emotional and vulnerable but at others downright awkward and argumentative (so basically I was all shades of my everyday self); she initially just thought that I was drunk and only realised that I had in fact been drugged the next day when I told her. The only effect that I can say the drug had on me with any certainty is that it caused me to completely blackout; my memory of that night has never returned.
What You Can Do.
If you are headed off backpacking to Colombia then what can you do to protect yourself against this?
Well, don’t be paranoid about laced newspapers, leaflets, business cards. You’ll look a complete dick wandering around Colombia in white gloves unwilling to touch anything and besides that, there is no actual evidence that it can be administered porously through the skin; rather these stories are best left in the cold war spy thrillers from where they seem to be taken.
Do however be vigilant in bars and clubs because if you are even remotely sociable then you will be invited to share in aguardiente or, if you’re so inclined, will be offered a roll-up or a joint. I guess the trick is to make sure that your new friends are also partaking and also watch where your drinks are coming from. Stories of honey traps are commonplace so remember, whilst Latina women are friendly (particular towards westerners) the usual rules of courtship will still apply so if you’re an ugly, fat bastard and yet a beautiful Colombiana is suddenly all over you then be very suspicious.
Ultimately your gut instinct will guide you and had I listened to mine that night then you wouldn’t be reading this now. But if you feel the devil’s breath breathing on you, then I wish you the very best of luck!