Andrés Felipe’s night of burundanga poisoning began with friends at a bar one Saturday. His companions went home, but he wanted to continue partying, so he headed to a Chapinero nightspot alone. Almost as soon as he walked in, he noticed an attractive guy who began to flirt with him. The man offered him a cigarette, which he accepted. They danced together and, as far as anyone else in the bar knew, they began to make out at a table by the bar. Although he knew that something was happening to him, Andrés Felipe was powerless. He couldn’t speak, but to others he probably just appeared to be “trabado”- wasted.
Andrés couldn’t remember much more until mid-morning when he awoke in a daze on the street without his shoes, cell phone or wallet. He was taken to the hospital, and it was indeed confirmed that he had been poisoned. He had suffered a few bruises, but what was more dangerous was the amount of cocaine he had been given to mask the effects of the poisoning. When he was able, Andrés Felipe went to the police to report the case. “This stuff happens every weekend,” he was told by uninterested officers almost laughing at him.
Andrés Felipe still goes out at night on occasion, but he’s much more careful now and always stays with friends. He continues to see his attacker every once in a while, who seems to be a fixture in gay nightclubs.
What is often called burundanga is the drug scopolamine, which is extracted from the native borrachero tree, a common ornamental plant known for its beautiful white or yellow flowers. This powerful drug, that produces hypnotic effects but has no flavor or smell, is slipped into drinks or cigarettes of unsuspecting victims often at bars or clubs, who are then robbed, beaten, kidnapped, sexually abused or in a few rare instances, murdered.
While scopolamine is still used by criminals, Andrés Rodríguez of the Coroner’s Office and an expert on the subject says that gangs are increasingly opting for readily available pharmaceutical sedatives such as lorazepam (Ativan), a box of which costs only about $10,000 pesos at pharmacies, or clonazepam (Rivotril) which is a newer favorite and more potent drug that comes in liquid form or worse yet, a cocktail of several drugs.
Poisoning incidents can happen anywhere – even on the street in the middle of the day or in buses. But more often than not, poisonings occur in bars and nightclubs. Victims are usually men who are alone. While this type of crime can happen to practically anyone – there are burundanga gangs of attractive young women who prey upon straight men and prostitutes have been known to use the drug to rob clients – gay men are often more vulnerable. The mayor of Chapinero, Blanca Durán, noted in El Tiempo that there are many gangs that “specialize” in targeting gay men, because they know that they’ll get away with it. In the same article, the local police chief placed the blame on gay victims for making themselves sitting ducks for crime. According to the National Police, this year, some 1800 cases of scopolamine cases have been reported in Bogotá.
A common scenario unfolds like this: an attractive man or woman begins flirting with a lone victim. After some small talk, they offer a drink or a smoke. Within about 15 minutes, the victim begins to feel woozy or disoriented, loses the ability to focus, experiences an extremely dry mouth, and above all, starts to feel powerless. Doing basically anything they are told, and unable to resist, the victim and attacker leave together.
As in other cities in the region, poisoning cases are not uncommon in Bogotá, but following simple guidelines can help prevent incidents. Here are a few common-sense tips:
1. Avoid going to or spending time in bars and nightclubs alone.
2. Never accept drinks or smokes from unknown people. Tell them that you’re not drinking tonight, don’t like whiskey or that you have the flu!
3. Keep an eye on your drink.
4. When going out at night, leave credit cards, ATM cards, expensive watches and jewelry at home. That especially goes for your passport (although keeping a photocopy handy is a good idea).
5. Be suspicious of strangers who approach you on the street, and keep a distance. Scopolamine can be placed in papers or books and easily inhaled.
6. Report this and all crimes or emergencies by calling 123.
If, however, you feel something strange after accepting a drink or smoke, trust your instincts. The key is getting home safely. It’s probably best not even to bother with private security personnel, as they have little authority and in some cases may actually be in cahoots with unsavory elements. If you feel like you should alert someone, find the club administrator or owner. Some will actually appreciate it if you can identify the thug so they might avoid problems down the road.
In the case of a poisoning, seeking medical attention is a good idea, if only to find out what you were given. Urine or blood analysis can determine whether burundanga was used, but only within about 48 hours. This information will be helpful in case you would like to make a denuncia (formal complaint) to police. Even though the odds of catching the culprit are slim, and you may not get much sympathy from the police, it’s probably good to report the incident.