Avoiding Drink Spiking Risk and Burundanga in Colombia

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Ask any Colombian local about borrachero, also known as burundanga, and they're sure to tell you some horror story. Myth has it this powerful drug can turn you into a virtual zombie. Here are the facts.

The Brugmansia arborea, or the angel's trumpet plant Photo © World Nomads

Imagine a drug that can transform you into a zombie slave. An automaton that loses all free will, is incredibly compliant but still appears to be alert and coherent. The drug is easily extracted from a very common plant, is tasteless, odorless and can be swiftly mixed into drinks, food and cigarettes. This demon drug is called borrachero.

Colombian locals will spin tales of submissive victims who willingly hand over their wallets and PINs, or visit the bank with their captors and withdraw huge sums of cash or take the thieves to their home and casually help them load all their possessions into a truck. Sound scary? That's because it's supposed to.

Borrachero: myth vs. reality

Firstly, let us say that borrachero is real and dangerous. The active substance is scopolamine and is extracted from the Bugmansia plant, also known as Angel's Trumpet, which grows wild throughout the Andes. However, the stories about criminals chemically inducing obedience are a bit of an urban myth.

There's plenty of mystery and intrigue surrounding scopolamine and it's ability to create compliance. Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death," supposedly experimented with the substance as an interrogation aid. The CIA had a similar idea and investigated it as a truth serum, although unsuccessfully. It's mentioned in a number of Hollywood classics, including Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone and the timeless Robocop 2.

So it's not surprising that scopolamine pops up in the international press every once in a while, cited in accounts of diplomats coerced into smuggling suitcases of cocaine; men who handed over all their money to prostitutes; or the jeweler who gave way all his stock because of a scopolamine-laced business card. They're the kind of tale you'd definitely pass on to other travelers and a great way to warn someone about the dangers of drink spiking. Like all good myths, there's a sizeable grain of truth in there as well.

But we think it's better to know the real deal about scopolamine so you know how to properly avoid it or what to do if someone's affected.

The effects of scopolamine

The effects of scopolamine are well-documented in the medical community. In small doses, it's used to treat a range of conditions, including Parkinson's disease, motion sickness, nausea and insomnia. It was even used during childbirth up until the 1960s. In large doses it can send you pretty loopy. 

In technical terms, an overdose of scopolamine causes anticholinergic toxidrome, which is characterized by blurred vision, dry mucous membranes, rapid heartbeat, fever, flushed dry skin, urinary retention, confusion, hallucinations, amnesia and psychosis. In high enough doses, it can also cause seizures and render someone unconscious for a long period of time, otherwise known as a coma.

Medical students learn to recognize the condition with a neat little mnemonic: Blind as a bat, mad as a hatter, red as a beet, hot as hell, dry as a bone, the bowel and bladder lose their tone, and the heart runs alone.

None of this sounds particularly pleasant, but it's not exactly describing the undetectably docile victims of a mind-controlling wonder drug. In fact, people known to be under the influence of scopolamine who are admitted to hospital often have to be restrained because of their unpredictable and aggressive behavior. Again, we're not suggesting borrachero isn't a real threat. A scopolamine overdose will leave you very vulnerable and there a plenty of reports of it being used in bars and nightclubs.

How to avoid getting drugged in Colombia

It's not a good idea to go out at night by yourself in Colombia. It's best to have a buddy or some friends to watch your back.

If you are with someone you think may have been drugged, it's important to get him or her medical attention as soon as possible. But don't go running off to find an ambulance and leave your friend in the hands of the criminals.

Stories of bizarre and ingenious ways borrachero has been administered are also common in Colombia. There are tales of it being mixed into chocolates, laced through pamphlets and dispersed into the air as a powder. There are even accounts of women rubbing men's faces into their scopolamine-smeared breasts.

The drug can be taken swallowed, inhaled, injected, smoked or absorbed through the skin, so there's a little bit of truth to the rumors.

You need to be incredibly careful about leaving your drinks unattended. And never accept food, drinks or cigarettes from strangers. If you didn't buy it yourself, don't touch it. Once you've bought it, don't let it go.

The story of the scopolamine sirens is actually plausible, assuming they dusted their cleavage with borrachero powder, so beware of debilitating bosoms.

However, the idea of people being laid out after accepting borrachero-laced business cards or pamphlets is a bit far-fetched, although founded in fact. The story is obviously based on scopolamine treatment for motion sickness, which comes in a patch and is absorbed through the skin. But these patches release a minuscule amount of the substance over a very long time, not in one quick hit.

The more likely version of this story involves someone holding up a map or menu dusted with borrachero and blowing the powder in your face. Obviously, this isn't the most covert of techniques but it could theoretically work.

If you think you've been targeted, try and find your friends to let them know. If you're alone head for a populated area so you're not as vulnerable. The next priority is a police officer or security guard. One mention of borrachero or burundanga and they'll understand you and should be able to help.

It's not hard to see why the borrachero mythos persists. It's a very appealing story, for both journalists and humans. The thought of such a powerful, mind-controlling drug holds a morbid fascination. There's one other reason too: In the myths borrachero completely obliterates free will and therefore their responsibility, yet it's supposedly impossible to tell when someone's affected. It's the perfect excuse. Not my fault, blame the borrachero!

But the myth serves its purpose. The reality of borrachero is just as frightening and, although it's not as prevalent as people believe, the threat is there.

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  • Researcher said

    The reason that the CIA tests failed is because the hallucinations prevented people from telling 'only' the truth, not becuase they weren't pliable enough.

  • Rachel Stone said

    Have you ever researched indigenous ceremonies of tribal kings that date back to around about Egyptian times? When a king of a tribe would die it was customary to bury his wife and servants along with him. They would be administered the burundangda (known today as devil's breath, scopolamine, etc...) So that the wife and servants would go lie down next to the dead king on their own free will and be buried alive. They saw this necessary in order to make way for a new king. And before you go trying to call the story a myth, just remember that hundreds of thousands of years ago before our time there was a time when these types of natural plants, herbs, trees, what have you were discovered and experimented with. The history of the drug dates many years back and as most drugs derived from the Earth they were discovered long before we were around. My point is that you can't debunk stories that have traveled down through the years to modern-day times because every story begins somewhere. And the story dates well before our time. Also it should be noted that no one should take a relaxing tone to this drug just because they read somewhere that it couldn't be absorbed by touching a business card or having it blown in their face or any of the other methods of delivery to the body. I just read a story where they were discussing the myths of this drug and they literally stated in black and white that the drug cannot be administered to the body through the skin which is absolutely ridiculous because scopolamine patches that are used for motion sickness and nausea are transdermal-meaning they are absorbed through the skin! When I went to comment on the article low and behold the comments had been disabled. I sincerely hope that the people who run across that article and read it don't go about their merry way on a trip to Columbia thinking that this drug is not transdermal when in fact, it is! False information puts people in danger. So maybe it's worth noting in your articles that not all the information that is being disband has been proven to be true or false, a myth or a legend, or a true story. I would also like to note that no one should ever say that a victim ALLOWED a crime to happen or that the crime was their fault or that they were asking for it and are now either embarrassed or just trying to find an excuse for their behavior, because that is absurd! That calls the notion to be able to be in one's head and know for yourself exactly second by second what they experienced when that is physically impossible! I absolutely believe that this drug has the ability to put someone into a catatonic/zombie-like state where that person has no sense of fight or flight response and who are fully submissive. For those who are not acutely aware of their surroundings it is absolutely possible for someone under the influence of this drug to look as though they are acting "normal" or maybe just acting drunk or under the influence of any kind of party drug. Everyone's body reacts differently to medications /drugs/alcohol, so in my opinion there is no way a stranger such as a hotel desk clerk or doorman could ever definitively say that the person was acting normal or not. And there is always the chance that the doorman, hotel clerk, bartender, ect... would just be saying that the person who had been administered scopolamine was acting normal to cover their own ass due to their involvement in the crime. The types of crimes that are being committed with this drug are often the types of crimes that take more than one person to carry out. It is ludicrous to think that thousands of people who have no idea who each other are and who come from all walks of life can have the same story with the same spectrum of circumstances without there being truth to it. It's one of those things that unless it has actually happened to you, you will never know! And by the way you spell "realize" with a "Z", NOT an "S"!

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