BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters)
- The last thing Andrea Fernandez recalls before being drugged is holding
her newborn baby on a Bogota city bus.
Police found her three days later, muttering to herself and wandering topless
along the median strip of a busy highway. Her face was badly beaten and
her son was gone.
Fernandez is just one of hundreds of victims every month who, according
to Colombian hospitals, are temporarily turned into zombies by a home-grown
drug called scopolamine which has been embraced by thieves and rapists.
"When I woke up in the hospital, I asked for my baby and nobody said
anything. They just looked at me," Fernandez said, weeping. Police
believe her son Diego was taken by a gang which traffics in infants.
Colorless, odorless and tasteless, scopolamine is slipped into drinks and
sprinkled onto food. Victims become so docile that they have been known
to help thieves rob their homes and empty their bank accounts. Women have
been drugged repeatedly over days and gang-raped or rented out as prostitutes.
In the case of Fernandez, the mother of three was rendered submissive enough
to surrender her youngest child.
Most troubling for police is the way the drug acts on the brain. Since
scopolamine completely blocks the formation of memories, unlike most date-rape
drugs used in the United States and elsewhere, it is usually impossible
for victims to ever identify their aggressors.
"When a patient (of U.S. date-rape drugs) is under hypnosis, he or
she usually recalls what happened. But with scopolamine, this isn't possible
because the memory was never recorded," said Dr. Camilo Uribe, the
world's leading expert on the drug.
Scopolamine has a long, dark history in Colombia dating back to before
the Spanish conquest.
Legend has it that Colombian Indian tribes used the drug to bury alive
the wives and slaves of fallen chiefs, so that they would quietly accompany
their masters into the afterworld.
Nazi "angel of death" Joseph Mengele experimented on scopolamine
as an interrogation drug. And scopolamine's sedative and amnesia-producing
qualities were used by mothers in the early 20th century to help them through
Finding the drug in Colombia these days is not hard.
The tree which naturally produces scopolamine grows wild around the capital
and is so famous in the countryside that mothers warn their children not
to fall asleep below its yellow and white flowers. The tree is popularly
known as the "borrachero," or "get-you-drunk," and
the pollen alone is said to conjure up strange dreams.
"We probably should put some sort of fence up," jokes biologist
Gustavo Morales at Bogota's botanical gardens, eyeing children playing
with borrachero seeds everywhere.
"If you ate a few of those, it would kill you."
Although scopolamine can be easily extracted from the seeds, experienced
criminals hardly ever bother with them, police say.
Pure, cheap scopolamine is brought across the border from neighboring Ecuador,
where the borrachero tree is harvested for medical purposes, Uribe said.
The alkaloid is used legally in medicines across the world to treat everything
from motion sickness to the tremors of Parkinson's disease.
The use of scopolamine by criminals appears to be confined to Colombia,
at least for now, and it's not clear why the drug is such a rampant problem
in Colombia. Some analysts blame it on a culture of crime in the Andean
nation, home to the world's largest kidnapping and cocaine industries,
not to mention Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war.
There are so many scopolamine cases that they usually don't make the news
unless particularly bizarre. One such incident involved three young Bogota
women who preyed on men by smearing the drug on their breasts and luring
their victims to take a lick.
Losing all willpower, the men readily gave up their bank access codes.
The breast-temptress thieves then held them hostage for days while draining
The U.S. Embassy in Bogota takes scopolamine very seriously and offers
staff tips on how avoid being drugged. One piece of advice may seem obvious:
Don't let your drinks out of your sight when at a Bogota bar or nightclub.
Still, at least three visiting U.S. government employees here have been
drugged and robbed over the past two years. Other American victims from
time to time appear at the embassy seeking help, still shaking off a scopolamine
"I remember one case, an American reported being drugged," an
embassy official said. "He says to his doorman 'Why did you let them
walk out with my stuff.' The doorman says, 'Because you told me to.'"
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