This spring I taught a class on the Global Drug Trade, and one of the students in the class shared a Vice News video with the class regarding a drug called Devil’s Breath. Please be warned that this video contains disturbing content, including discussion of rape and violence, as well as profanity. It is also an unusual video regarding drug usage, because Devil’s Breath (scopolamine, which is also known as Burundanga in Latin America) is unlike other drugs in that it is not consumed for pleasure. Rather, it is allegedly used by criminals in Colombia in order to take away someone’s will. The drug itself can be created easily from a common tree in Colombia, called the borrachero tree. There are seven trees in the Brugmansia genus, which contain the active ingredient scopolamine. These trees are common throughout northern South America, where they are extinct in the wild, but are sometimes used as ornamental trees because of their beautiful flowers.
According to Colombians who were interviewed in the video, criminals can ask someone to smell the powder, and the drug is so potent that it will take effect when they sniff. The video contains a series of interviews, including a taxi driver who seems to know all too much about the drug, and some people who were victimized using it. Still, the stories were so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but wonder, could this possibly be true? Can victims truly lose their will, so that they will assist a robber to burglarize their home? Or is this partly folklore? Vice’s reporter Ryan Duffy did not appear to be someone with a deep knowledge of Colombia. Nonetheless, the interviews with authorities, including the police and a doctor, were very convincing. Nonetheless, I wondered how to judge where reality ended and folklore began. After all, this drug is used in Western medicine to treat some conditions such as motion sickness? Wouldn’t this effect be familiar from this usage? Or are there differences between scopolamine and the the drug variant used
in Colombia? Is there an admixture which impacts the drug’s properties? Whatever the truth, many of these accounts would have been fertile ground for Gabriel Garcia Marques’s darker short stories. The video is an interesting and disturbing treatment of an uncommon topic, which is appropriate for a mature audience only.
For those who might be curious to learn more about the ethnobotany behind this drug, please view A Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants by Richard Evan Shultes (p. 145).1 In this work he notes that Chile’s indigenous peoples used a drug from this family of trees to deal with unruly children. He also stated that the ancient Chibchas of Bogota used a treatment produced from this genus of trees to induce a stupor amongst the “wives and slaves” of famous men who had died, before they were buried alive in their tombs. Shultes did not provide a source for this information. But if this drug does truly act remove peoples’ willpower, it would have made sense that it would have been used on people about to sacrificed in this manner. According to Dobkin de Rios (2), the Chibchan peoples made a snuff from a tree in Brugmansia genus, after which the Spanish claimed that they would see the devil. Clearly these trees have a long and strange history of human usage, which merits further study. This would be a great topic for a doctoral dissertation, by someone interested in ethnobotany or ethnohistory.
There is also some research in peer-reviewed journals to support the argument that Devil’s Breath really is used by criminals. A recent article in Forensic Science International examined “one fatal and two non-fatal cases of scopolamine-facilitated robberies.”3. The authors report that the forensics work detected evidence of scopolamine. What is distinct about this case is not only the location (the Netherlands), but also that each of these crimes was linked to a single suspect, who likely carried out far more crimes than this forensics work documented: “Several tens of cases involving this suspect were brought to the attention of the police, but toxicological analysis was only performed in the three cases described here.”3 The suspect claimed that he bought the drug on the internet, and that he used it as an aphrodisiac.3 In the end, the “suspect was sentenced for eleven cases of robbery.”3
Another recently published peer-reviewed journal article looked at the use of Devil’s Breath in Venezuela, where “like in other American and European countries, delinquents trick victims with hidden scopolamine (usually as drinks) to take advantage of the drug-induced impairment in cognitive functions (Lusthof et al., 2017), particularly the loss of the emotional excitation stimulating effect in memory (Kamboj and Curran, 2006).”4 This hospital being in Venezuela, as the authors noted, the common antidote for scolopamine (physostigmine) was in short supply. So the authors at Los Andes University Hospital describe their efforts to use rivastigmine to treat their patients instead. What is interesting is that their patients were young, usually within two years of seventeen, and evenly divided between males and females. Two of the patients did not receive any treatment. In the end the authors believed that rivastigmine might have improved their symptoms, but could not demonstrate that the patients would not have improved on their own through time. The larger point, however, is that it is very clear that criminals are using this drug for crimes not only in South America, but also globally. The information in the Vice video would appear to be largely accurate, and hence particularly horrifying.
- Schultes, Richard Evans, and Elmer W. Smith. Hallucinogenic plants. Vol. 35. New York: Golden Press, 1976.
- See Dobkin de Rios, M. (2009). Alter Ego Representations in San Agustin Monolithic Sculptures: Possible Plant Hallucinogenic Influences. Journal Of Psychoactive Drugs, 41(4), 320
- Lusthof, Bosman, Kubat, & Vincenten-van Maanen. (2017). Toxicological results in a fatal and two non-fatal cases of scopolamine-facilitated robberies. Forensic Science International, 274, 79-82.
- Sandia S, Ignacio ; Ramírez V, Jorge ; Piñero A, Javier ; Baptista T, Trino, Treating ‘Devil׳s Breath׳ intoxication: Use of rivastigmine in six patients with toxic psychoses due to non pharmaceutical scopolamine
European Neuropsychopharmacology, August 2017, Vol.27(8), pp.833-834
Shawn Smallman, 2017