By Nick OlleMarch 9, 2012
Every year in Colombia there are hundreds of reported cases of the criminal use of burundanga, a mysterious drug that allegedly robs victims of their free will.
It all starts with the brugmansia plant.
You'd no doubt recognise the beautiful, pendulous flowers to which it owes its English name, Angel's Trumpet.
Its Spanish name, however, is arguably more instructive - El Borrachero (The Drunkard). The plant contains a chemical called scopolamine - commonly known as burundanga - that produces psychoactive effects in humans.
It is used medicinally to prevent post-operative nausea, in science to simulate amnesia, and it is used by criminals for, umm, mind control.
The theory, backed by victims, police and health officials, is that under the influence of scopolamine, people are rendered virtual "human puppets", completely susceptible to the suggestions of criminals.
According to Colonel Mariano Botero Coy of the Bogotá Metropolitan Police, the modus operandi of these criminals - and he says they are generally gangs rather than individuals - is true to the stereotype.
"In many cases it is a man alone in a nightspot and a woman manages to put the substance in his drink," he says.
"The victim then loses their free will; they are conscious of what is happening but they lose their free will."
There's even a verb for this type of crime - burundangear. And actor Matías Maldonado, has twice been a victim.
Both times - in 2003 and 2005 - he was "in the context of seduction…vulnerable" in a gay district of downtown Bogotá.
His recollection of the first time he was drugged amounts to waking up confused and discovering his bank account was empty. But on the second occasion, he remembers going to an ATM with a man he'd met in a bar. "I was completely conscious at this stage," he says, "we returned to the bar and I used the money I'd withdrawn to buy drinks.
"I can only assume that at this point he spiked my drink and we went back to the ATM and emptied my account. I don't remember this part but the next day, I still had my bank card but there was a balance of zero.
"It's incredible to think that this can happen, that you can freely give the code to your bank account to someone. There are even cases where people take someone to their home, open the door and help them clear everything out."
But are we really talking about actual mind control? The removal of free will?
Neuropsychologist Dr Vaughan Bell of the King's College in London doubts it. Having recently finished a three-year stint at the University of Antioquia in the Colombian city of Medellin, Dr Bell has studied the plant at close range.
Pointing out some of the many varieties of brugmansia plants in Medellin's Botanic Gardens - and they are found in gardens right across the country - Dr Bell says it is more likely that scopolamine simply makes people more passive.
"No one has genuinely studied whether scopolamine affects our free will, but it is a really common belief that is even held by some scientists," he says.
"All we have to go on are the stories of people who have been affected and some secondhand observations," he says, "and one of the difficulties is that it greatly affects memory so people can't remember what happened after they've been robbed or attacked.
"I suspect that it makes people quite passive and easier to intimidate and control. This is perhaps where some of the beliefs about free will and suggestion and compliance come from."
Dr Bell says indigenous South Americans have "undoubtedly" used the brugmansia plant ceremonially for thousands of years because of its ability to induce visions. The criminal use of scopolamine, though, began in the 1950s.
"In the 1980s criminals began using something they call new burundanga, which is pure scopolamine or pure scopolamine mixed with benzodiazepines (minor pharmaceutical tranquilisers)," he says.
The synthesisation of scopolamine and its criminal use in conjunction with other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, has blurred the lines - or at least broadened the definition - of what burundanga is.
Journalist Fabian Yáñez of Bogotá's City TV knows more about modern burundanga than most.
Every night at about 10pm he and two colleagues, armed with police radios and an extensive network of contacts ("the best of which are taxi drivers"), traverse the capital in a City TV news vehicle in search of sordid stories.
En route to a women's prison where the authorities' refusal to allow an inmate mother to see her newborn daughter has sparked protests, Yáñez tells me they usually come across "one or two [burundanga] cases a week.
"There are many more cases than that though," he says, noting that most go unnoticed and unreported. "Generally there is just the one victim and it happens in places like nightclubs, brothels, casinos - situations that people don't want to publicise."
There is a tendency in Colombia to use the terms "scopolamine" and burundanga as a catchall for all cases in which criminals take advantage of drugged victims. The reality is that many of these cases now involve new burundanga or other illicit cocktails that may or may not include scopolamine.
Yáñez, for example, was the victim of a "burundanga" incident that did not involve scopolamine.
"I was offered a beer and lost consciousness. I woke up the next morning in a hospital in the south of the city and I'd been robbed of everything I had on me. But what they used on me was not scopolamine, it was a kind of tranquiliser they use on animals."
Yolanda Sandoval, a medical toxicologist with the Colombian Health Ministry, says there were 563 registered cases of "intoxication by chemical substances" in 2011, a five per cent increase from 2010.
She too stresses that the real figure - at least in terms of criminal burundanga cases - would be considerably higher.
Of all of these chemical substance intoxications, crimes involving scopolamine are particularly difficult to keep track of, not just because of under-reporting but because the substance leaves the body within 12 hours.
Indeed, Dr Sandra Moreno of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences says the last burundanga case in Bogotá confirmed to have involved scopolamine was in 2008.
Some 300 kilometres north of Bogotá, in the city of Bucaramanga, the dust has only recently settled on what is arguably Colombia's most notorious burundanga case.
On April 6, 2011 police arrested Remolina Escobar, the so-called "Reina de Escopolamina" ("Queen of Scopolamine"). Over the previous 14 months, Escobar, 35, had stolen from 12 homes in which she'd been employed as a domestic servant. She admitted her guilt and is now in prison.
The officer who masterminded her downfall is Carlos Méndez of the Technical Investigation Unit (CTI) of the Colombian Attorney General's Office.
Méndez discovered that Escobar used a series of false identities and references to obtain work both through domestic help agencies and in response to newspaper advertisements.
"She is a woman with a special charisma," he says. "She always managed to get the job in the first interview and to win the confidence of her employers.
"In 80 per cent of the cases, she offered them flavoured water, juice or coffee and put the substance into it. The remainder of the time they trusted her so much that they left her there alone.
"She generally worked in places with private security so she could not take large items. She'd generally take things like cameras, cell phones, laptops, cash, jewellery."
Again though, and despite the "Queen of Scopolamine" moniker, it is unclear whether Escobar actually used scopolamine. Indeed Méndez says that scopolamine was not among the stupefying drugs that were found when she was arrested.
Whatever the specific makeup of the drugs, on average there are close to two reported burundanga cases a day in Colombia.
So, why is there no mass hysteria?
There is talk of education programs, prevention measures and the need for a "great social commitment" to boot. But as Bogotá Health Secretary Dr Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo Martínez says, there has never been a unified campaign involving different institutions and government departments.
"The police do their campaigns and we do ours, but we've never reached an agreement whereby we all participate at the same time in a campaign against this type of drug," he says.
For Fabian Yáñez, the simple truth is that Colombians have long dealt with bigger, badder evils.
"What would happen if these cases were in Austria or Romania or the United States? It'd be a scandal, the front page story in all the papers," he says.
"Here in Colombia, on any given night there are deaths, murders, suicides, kidnappings. For generations people have learned to live with this kind of violence.
"In this context scopolamine cases seem quite normal."