Devil’s Breath is the South American drug criminals use to control the minds of tourists

Devil’s Breath is the South American drug criminals use to control the minds of tourists

VicesNovember 27, 2017 By Paul Hazelton

The three day period between the moment Andrea Fernandez was drugged on a public bus with her newborn and when the police found her mumbling incoherently and topless on a busy Bogota highway is a dark blip in her memory.

During the fit of amnesia, her son Diego was kidnapped by human traffickers and she had been severely beaten.

This is one of thousands of stories attributed to a little-known drug found in South America known as Scopolamine, also known as its rightfully earned nickname: “Devil's Breath.”

The cocaine-like power is derived from an unassuming and wild growing tree with bell-bottom white flowers named the Borrachero (or loosely translated to the “get-you-drunk” tree). It's commonly used in motion sickness drugs and other medications.

But it clearly has other uses, and its medical accolades aren't what the harrowing stories are about. Devil's Breath seems to be a drug that belongs better in the annals of The Twilight Zone.

Because instead of getting you high, like most drugs, Scopolamine’s claim to fame is twofold. One is stripping users of free will, and the other redacting any memory of the experience.

Stories commonly attributed to it, some dating back to the 1970s, go a little something like this:

Someone with Scopolamine finds an easy mark. They walk up to them, drop it into a drink (it's odorless and tasteless), blow it directly into someone’s face or ask something innocuous like, “ You party? Wanna’ key bump?”

Within seconds, the victim is a virtual zombie, primed to follow any command the attackers demand.

The instructions can be nearly anything, from allowing a simple sexual assault to happen or robbing an entire house with the owner's permission — even to smuggling drugs or offering up organs. Some claim to have emptied out entire bank accounts with no recollection of it.

In other words, it’s the likes of any god-awful scenario without so much as remembering an attacker's face or anything else about the event. Those around victims are powerless to help, too, because to them it appears nothing is wrong.

The reason Devil's Breath is so effective, is that under its spell, people reportedly behave relatively normal — excluding easily overlooked symptoms like dry mouth, dilated pupils and confusion. In fact, the only people who might notice anything awry is a bank teller or landlady as someone moves everything they own into a strange pickup truck.

With all that in mind, it's maybe not so surprising that in 2012 alone, Colombian police reported 1,200 cases of the drug. And since 2015, the U.S.’s Overseas Security Advisory Council has specifically warned travelers about it citing unofficial reports that put case numbers at 50,000 incidents annually.

It’s not just in South America, either. Devil’s Breath assaults have been reported as far away as Europe and are rumored to be on the rise.  

In 2015, three women connected to a “triad-style criminal gang” were arrested in Paris for allegedly robbing elderly people with the drug — though no lab results were able to corroborate this.

In 2016, the first confirmed case was reported in Mallorca, Spain, after a woman was admitted into the hospital after being dosed by her ex-boyfriend.

Luckily, there is one drawback for criminals. Scopolamine, along with its hallucinogenic and submitting effects, has been shown to cause fits of rage resulting in the assaulters becoming the assaultees on occasion.

“We’ve had cases in the emergency room in which we would have to treat both the victim who was intoxicated with the drug and the criminal whom he had beaten up,” explains Dr. Camilo Uribe, a leading expert who spoke to the GlobalPost.

But while the drug is no doubt real and used in crimes, many experts believe the stories surrounding its effects can be exaggerated.

“The key seems to be that scopolamine blocks a particular neurotransmitter essential to memory,” explains Renate Thienel, a Neuroscientist from the University of Newcastle in Australia to Wired. “Scans also reveal the drug affects the amygdala, a brain area controlling aggression and anxiety, which would explain scopolamine’s pacifying effect. Evidence also suggests victims tend to be confused and passive rather than unable to resist commands.”

So maybe the substance doesn't necessarily hypnotize victims, but it does induce a state eerily close to it.

Further muddling fact from fiction is that the drug disappears from the bloodstream after four to six hours — making diagnosis a rarity and the stories attributed to it often unverifiable. Which is why reports of its use in Paris and elsewhere remain an open question.  

Another oddity of it is the equally bizarre and clouded myths of Scopolamine’s history. In pre-colonial South America, stories claim it was used by incoming leaders to convince wives and mistresses of fallen rulers to enter mass graves where they were buried alive.

It's also reported that during the Spanish Inquisition, accused witches used a variant of the drug called henbane while practicing black magic.

More recently, its believe that Dr. Josef “Angel of Death” Mengele, an infamous Nazi scientist, utilized it in interrogations as a truth serum — a theory also tested by both the CIA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Though all of these experiments ultimately failed (thankfully) due to its tendency to produce unreliable information.  

Despite all this ambiguity, one thing is certain: Devil's Breath is much more than a simple urban legend, it's a petrifying reality. And no matter what anyone chooses to believe about the drug, it seems clear that at least in some parts of the world, what gold was to alchemists, Scopolamine is to the aspiring degenerate.

[cover photo: @flower_vietnam]