The drug achieves its "zombifying" effects by inhibiting the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain and muscles. It has several legitimate medicinal uses, including the treatment of nausea, motion sickness, and gastrointestinal cramps. Historically, it has also been used as a "truth serum" by law enforcement agencies. And, like its street cousin burundanga, scopolamine has frequently been implicated as a stupefying agent or "knockout drug" in the commission of crimes such as robbery, kidnapping, and date rape.
In South America burundanga is associated in popular lore with potions long used to induce a trance-like state in shamanic rituals. Reports of the drug's use in criminal activities first surfaced in Colombia during the 1980s. According to a lurid Wall Street Journal article published in 1995, the number of reported burundanga-assisted crimes in the country approached "epidemic" proportions in the 1990s.
"In one common scenario, a person will be offered a soda or drink laced with the substance," the article stated. "The next the person remembers is waking up miles away, extremely groggy and with no memory of what happened. People soon discover that they have handed over jewelry, money, car keys, and sometimes have even made multiple bank withdrawals for the benefit of their assailants."
Though the frequency of such assaults has presumably declined along with the country's overall crime rate in more recent years, the U.S. State Department still warns travelers to beware of "criminals in Colombia using disabling drugs to temporarily incapacitate tourists and others."
Confirmed reports of burundanga assaults appear to be less common outside Colombia, but that doesn't mean other Central and South American countries have been immune to rumors of rape and robbery committed by criminals wielding the much-dreaded "zombie drug" or "voodoo powder." Some may even be true, though most of the tales circulating on the Internet smack of urban legendry.
A Spanish-language email circulating in 2004 related the details of an incident very similar to the one already described at the top of this article, except it happened in Peru. The victim claimed she was approached by a one-legged man who asked her to help him dial a call on a public telephone. When he handed her a phone number written on a slip of paper, she immediately began to feel dizzy and disoriented, and nearly fainted. Luckily, she had the presence of mind to run to her car and escaped. According to the email, a blood test administered later at a hospital confirmed the victim's own suspicions: she had been slipped a dose of burundanga.
There's more than one reason to doubt the story. First, it's unlikely that someone could absorb enough of the drug by simply handling a piece of paper to suffer any ill effects. Second, the text goes on to claim that the author was told there had been several other local cases of burundanga poisoning in which the victims were found dead, and -- lo and behold -- some of their organs were missing (a reference to the classic "kidney theft" urban legend).
Like the stories circulating in North America about criminals using ether-tainted perfume samples to knock out their victims, the burundanga emails trade on fear, not facts. They tell of alleged close calls with would-be attackers, not actual crimes. They are dysfunctional cautionary tales.
Make no mistake, burundanga is real. It is used in the commission of crimes. If you're traveling in a region where its use has been confirmed, exercise due caution. But don't rely on forwarded emails for your facts.
Sources and further reading:
Latin America: Victims of Drugging and Mugging
Telegraph, 5 February 2001
Dupes, Not Dopes
Guardian, 18 September 1999
Colombia: Crime Advisories
U.S. State Dept., 13 August 2008
Singing to the Plants, 17 December 2007
Tales of 'Burundanga'
El Nuevo Diario, 30 May 2006 (in Spanish)
Burundanga Assault Is False
VSAntivirus.com, 25 April 2006 (in Spanish)
Urban Myth Becomes a Reality for a Houston Woman
KIAH-TV News, 29 March 2010
Last updated: 01/23/13