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Victims Of Colombian Muggers’ Drug Don’t Know What Hit Them

August 26, 1994

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ All Juan Carlos Cuervo was planning to do when he stepped out on a recent Friday night was grab a beer.

He was found three days later, wandering about his neighborhood in a zombie-like state and robbed of all his money - a victim in a bizarre crime wave in which thieves use a powerful drug as a weapon.

Thousands of people have been robbed or raped in the past two decades after being slipped the drug scopolamine, known as ″burundanga″ on the street, prompting a U.S. State Department warning to travelers to Colombia.

″The drug renders the person disoriented and powerless to resist the criminal’s orders,″ the State Department says in a travel advisory.

Although the plant that burundanga comes from is found in many parts of the world, including the Andes Mountains, its use as a weapon is uniquely Colombian. Attacks have been reported in Spain and Panama, but even in those incidents it’s suspected Colombians were involved.

Criminals often administer the drug, a highly soluble white powder with no taste or smell, by slipping it into a drink or blowing it into the face of an unsuspecting victim.

Among the plants burundanga comes from is ″el borrachero,″ or ″the intoxicator,″ a tree with white, trumpet-shaped flowers that grows wild in Bogota. The drug is easily extracted by using alcohol or sulphuric acid.

Scopolamine has been used in medicine, often as a sedative, in the United States and other countries for years. It’s also used to treat Parkinson’s disease and in patches that prevent motion sickness.

But too much of the drug can cause disorientation, memory loss, hallucinations and convulsion. In large quantities, its effects can last for days.

Cuervo says one of his last memories of that recent Friday was having a drink in a bar. ″A moment later, I was in a taxi going I don’t know where,″ the 28-year-old biologist recalled.

The following Monday morning, a neighbor spotted Cuervo wandering in a daze near his home in filthy clothes, and pulled him off the street.

Two days later, Cuervo was still recovering from the experience at a clinic, hooked up to an IV drip of antibiotics.

Cuervo has no idea what happened to him during his lost weekend.

On Monday, yet another victim of burundanga emerged: a man who was mutilated while under the drug’s spell.

Marco Tulio Velez, told hospital officials that two women angry at him for flirting with them gave him chewing gum laced with the drug. When he came to hours later, he discovered his penis had been severed.

The women remain at large.

Dr. Camilo Uribe, director of the toxicology clinic where Cuervo was being treated, said people under the influence of high amounts of burundanga have emptied their bank accounts for thieves.

″It’s much like hypnosis, but a chemical version,″ said Uribe, whose clinic treated 364 burundanga victims last year.

Many people in Bogota, an Andean city of almost 7 million people, know someone who has been a victim.

Police consider the drug a major problem. Prosecuting cases is difficult because victims rarely remember their assailants.

An overdose of the drug can trigger violence, hallucinations and even cause death. Ten milligrams, or the equivalent of less than a pinch of salt, can induce a coma, said Peter Spencer, a toxicologist at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.

The plant has been used in Indian religious rites in South America for centuries. Its hallucinogenic effects symbolize power. In rural Colombia, some people grow the tree outside their home for protection, to let potential aggressors know they have the power to bend minds.

Uribe said that because its victims can turn violent, criminals began mixing it with sedatives in the early 1980s Burundanga ″appears to be another of our unique legacies,″ the newsmagazine Semana lamented recently.