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Called ‘the most dangerous drug in the world,’ scopolamine is used frequently in rapes and robberies

By Susan Schenck

“I could never happen to me,” you think.

But then it does. You wake up in an unfamiliar place and slowly, you become aware that you’ve had sex. The last thing you remember is that you were having a few drinks with an acquaintance. Did you really black out and go home with him? You weren’t even attracted to him! Nonetheless, you’re embarrassed and ashamed, and feel it must have been your fault.

It happened to me in London 30 years ago. It happened to my niece in L.A. 20 years ago. And it happened to a good friend of mine here in Cuenca just a month ago. She was out with a young man—an acquaintance—someone she hardly knew. Yet she woke up in his apartment thinking, “How could I have blacked out when all I had was a beer and one vodka?”
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Andrew Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics -mogul Max Factor and heir to a fortune, was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison for dosing three women with GHB, a drug popular with body builders when it was legal in the 1990s, then taking them home to rape while they were unconscious. Why would someone like Andrew Luster, rich and handsome, stoop to such levels? As my friend remarked, “Such men are cowards.” Most are probably sociopaths on a power play, lacking social skills and empathy.

Here in Ecuador, scopalomine, called burndanga in Colombia and northern Ecuador, is the drug of choice for date rapes. It comes from the droopy flower of the guanto bush that can be seen in abundance around Cuenca—but given the wrong dose, the victim dies.

Local police believe that these types of rapes are underreported. This is likely because the victim believes herself to be at fault, or she fears the police won’t believe her anyway, according to one woman I interviewed.

Young tourist women are most vulnerable, since they’re more likely to go out alone, whereas young Ecuadorian women tend to go out with a group of friends. But one expat woman I know was at a bar and had just a couple of drinks. Her local buddies noticed her lack of coordination; knowing she couldn’t be drunk, they figured she’d been drugged, so they took her home. Apparently, her would-be assailant assumed she’d been alone.

Since scopalomine has no color, taste, or odor, the most popular way to slip the mickey is via a drink. That’s why it’s best to take your drink with you everywhere, or gulp it down before going to the bathroom. Never accept a drink from a stranger. One young expat even warns, “If you’re in a sketchy bar, don’t even take a drink from the bartender! Just get a bottled beer.”

However, in some cases, the powder is blown on people. Some friends of mine had this experience here in Cuenca and went to a hotel restaurant to get over the headache. Fortunately, there were three of them. Criminals know it’s a lot easier to go after a loner—one person in a group is likely to remain lucid. There have even been cases in which a person touches a paper (say, a map from a stranger asking for help) and goes under the spell, getting “scoped.”

In most cases robbery is the motive and you wake up at your own place—with a foggy memory of meeting someone the prior evening—and you realize all your electronics and other valuables have been cleaned out. These robbers often work together in gangs, a kind of organized crime.

Often criminals take victims to banks and ATM machines to withdraw cash. According to police, it is also used to take tourists back to their hotel rooms where criminals take cash, computers, cameras, documents, etc. In most cases, the victims appear to be functioning normally. In one case, a woman victim took $10,000 cash out of her bank account and “willingly” (in an altered state of conscious) handed it to the criminal.

In another case, a woman picked up a rich guy at a nightclub and took him to her home, while her gang cleaned out his house. She also led him to various ATM machines and since he was in a trance state, he readily complied. In another case, a gay man drugged his man of the night (a gay expat) and robbed him while at his home.

In an incident I detail in my book, Expats in Cuenca, a man was lured into a dalliance with a pretty young local woman, took her home, and woke up with all his valuables missing, including the wedding ring of his deceased wife. In another instance, a local man was waiting for a bus to go to work. The last thing he recalled was someone blowing dust in his face. Some people found him unconscious and helped him get to safety, but he’d been robbed of everyuthing he had on him.

The drug incapacitates a person’s reasoning abilities and allows criminals to control the victim. The crimes are most common in Guayas Province (Guayaquil), but are also known to happen in Santa Elena (Salinas and Montanita) and Manibí Province (Manta). They’re not unknown in Quito—and there have been enough of them in Cuenca to fill this article.

As I always tell people, there isn’t more crime in Ecuador, it’s just different.  And it pays to be aware.

Susan Schenck is the author of several books, including Expats in Cuenca: The Magic & The Madness and The Quilotoa Loop: Ecuador’s Hidden Treasure. She also gives raw food classes and catering and can be contacted at LiveFoodFactor@Yahoo.com

Photo caption: The flowers from the Guanto bush (also called the Borochero bush), which are used to produce scopolamine, grow wild in Ecuador and Colombia.