Travel Warning: Scopolamine’s Silent Threat to Tourists

Table of Contents

How the Odorless, Tasteless Drug is Used on Tourists and Tips On How To Safeguard Yourself.

Scopolamine, a substance found in some motion sickness medications, is being misused for criminal purposes in South America, particularly Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. This dangerous drug induces a disoriented state and leaves victims incapacitated and vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault and other crimes.

What is scopolamine, and how did it transform from a medicinal aid to a tool for crime?

Scopolamine, also known as Burandanga and Devil’s Breath, is a tropical alkaloid produced by species of plants such as Hyoscyamus Albus and Datura Stramonium. Scopolamine is most commonly used to prevent motion sickness and alleviate nausea. However, this potent compound has a dark side when misused. Due to its colorless and tasteless nature, perpetrators can covertly administer the substance easily on victims. Reports of criminal scopolamine administration have emerged as early as the 1950s, with studies in Colombia suggesting a worrying rise in recent years. In fact, according to the New York Times, American officials are so concerned that they issued a security alert about sedatives and a wave of violent crime targeting tourists in Colombia this January.
Young people walk to work through the streets of downtown Guatemala

What are the effects of scopolamine intoxication?

In therapeutic doses, common side effects are drowsiness, dry mouth, and blurred vision. However, when overdosed, the consequences are far more severe. Victims of scopolamine intoxication often experience profound amnesia, memory loss, and disorientation. Victims are vulnerable and compliant, stripping away their ability to resist suggestions. Victims will often surrender their valuables to criminals without any hesitation, and withdraw money from banks without any resistance. The victim is in an amnestic state and is not aware that they have been a victim of a crime. There is usually no aggression or violence, therefore, there are no obvious external signs that something nefarious is occurring among bystanders that may be around the perpetrator and victim. Victims can wake up hours or even a day later, unable to recall what transpired, their belongings stolen, and their trust shattered.This ability to induce amnesia makes scopolamine a potent tool for criminals, allowing them to exploit their victims without fear of repercussion. From simple theft to more heinous crimes such as sexual assault, scopolamine intoxication is said to affect around 50,000 people a year in Colombia alone.

Who are the victims?

Men are most frequently targeted by these types of attacks, with the drug often delivered by women they have met on travel, in bars, or more commonly on dating apps. In many cases, the perpetrator may go on multiple dates with the victim to build trust and gain intel before getting invited to the victim’s home, or hotel, where the theft occurs. Female victims have been drugged in similar situations. While intoxicated, they are helpless and are sexually assaulted.

How are victims poisoned with these drugs?:

  1. Contaminating Food and Drinks: Scopolamine can be discreetly added to the victim’s food or beverages.
  2.  Powdered Form: The drug can be used in powdered form, often blown into the victim’s face from items such as menus, maps, or straws.
  3. Spiked Cigarettes: Perpetrators may offer victims cigarettes laced with scopolamine, which is then inhaled.
  4. Topical Application: The drug can be applied to surfaces or directly to the victim’s skin, where it is absorbed through touch.

These covert methods underscore the insidious nature of scopolamine poisoning and highlight the importance of awareness and precautionary measures to prevent such occurrences.

Cocktail close up in a bar setting Blurred people in the backgr

Tips to prevent being a victim

For those travelling to South America, specifically Colombia and other affected countries, it’s crucial to remain vigilant and cautious.

Here are 11 suggestions to prevent being a victim while travelling:

  1. Research Your Destination: Before you go, learn about the place you’re visiting. Understand its safety reputation, areas to avoid, and any local scams or risks. Familiarise yourself with local emergency numbers and procedures in case you need assistance.
  2. Learn Basic Phrases: If travelling to a foreign country, learn basic phrases in the local language, including emergency phrases and how to ask for help.
  3. Secure Your Belongings: Keep your valuables, including passports and money, in a secure location such as a hotel safe. When out and about, use a money belt or hidden pouch to carry essentials.
  4. Plan Your Routes, Avoid Dark and Isolated Areas: Know where you’re going and how you’ll get there. Avoid wandering aimlessly, especially in unfamiliar areas.
  5. Use Reliable Transportation: Opt for reputable transportation options rather than hitchhiking or accepting rides from strangers.
  6. Trust Your Instincts: If something feels off or unsafe, trust your gut and remove yourself from the situation.
  7. Be Cautious with Food and Alcohol: Always watch your food and drinks and never leave them unattended. If you need to step away, finish your drink, leave it with someone you trust, or get a new one when you return.
  8. Be Cautious of ‘Friendly’ Locals: Those who exhibit an extraordinary interest in your background, reasons for travel, your profession, or anything that may give them a reason to believe you have access to valuables and could be a potential victim.
  9. Blend In and Avoid Displaying Wealth: Try to avoid standing out as a tourist. Dress appropriately for the local culture, avoid flashy jewelry or expensive gadgets, and carry a discreet bag.
  10. Stay Alert: Pay attention to your surroundings at all times. Avoid distractions like excessive phone use, especially in crowded or unfamiliar areas. Keep up with local news and events, especially if you’re staying for an extended period.
  11. Stay Connected: Keep someone informed about your whereabouts, especially if you’re travelling alone (share your real-time location). Regularly check in with friends or family members back home.

What to do if you fall victim?

Scopolamine does not have a very long half-life, even in toxic doses it’s completely excreted from the body in 3-4 days but remains unchanged in a person’s urine for the first 12 hours, making obtaining a positive urine toxicology screen challenging, since most victims do not present to authorities within that timeframe. If you’ve been a victim of this criminal activity, the good news is the long-term physical side effects are minimal and rarely include death. The anticholinergic side effects can be treated and usually, within a few days, the drug completely clears the body, based on the drug’s short half-life.
If you are travelling, and you believe you may have been drugged, you should report it to local authorities and seek medical attention. You should also contact your travel risk management organisation for further advice on mitigating additional losses depending on the valuables that were stolen or the access to information the criminals may have gained.
By understanding the dangers of scopolamine intoxication and spreading awareness, you can empower yourself and those around you to recognise the signs and take action to prevent falling victim to this criminal activity.

 

WRITTEN BY: Michael Guirguis, MD, is an Emergency Room Physician and Reserve Sheriff Deputy for San Bernardino Sheriff Air Rescue, with extensive experience in pre-hospital care. Along with his role as an EP professional, he is the Founder & Chief Medical Officer at Raven Medical Support Group, and Chief Medical Officer for XPJ, contracting SOF Pararescuemen Paramedics to augment the medical needs of EP teams.

Team,Of,Doctor,And,Nurse,With,Vision,,Teamwork,And,Arms

Find out how we can help you travel safely

Whether you or your staff are travelling around the world, your requirements might go further than these important medicalsafety tips. World Travel Protection is a 24/7 travel and medical assistance provider that helps support its customers when medical, travel and security emergencies arise. Our Travel Risk Management Solutions help provide travellers with all the support they need pre- and during travel via our portal, app, and in-house experts. Fill out the form below to find out more.