What You Should Know About Burundanga

Handing a business card to someone else
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In 2008, viral alerts appeared warning of criminals using business cards or slips of paper soaked in a potent street drug called burundanga to incapacitate victims before attacking them.

Is there a drug called burundanga that criminals in Latin America have used to incapacitate their victims? Yes.

Have news and law enforcement sources confirmed that burundanga is regularly used to commit crimes in the U.S., Canada, and other countries outside Latin America?

No, they have not.

The viral story, which has circulated in various forms since 2008, is almost certainly a fabrication. Two details in particular betray it as such:

  1. The victim allegedly received a dose of the drug by simply touching a business card. All sources agree that burundanga (aka scopolamine hydrobromide) must be inhaled, ingested or injected, or the subject must have prolonged topical contact with it (e.g., via a transdermal patch), in order for it to have an effect.
  2. The victim allegedly detected a "strong odor" coming from the drug-laced card. All sources agree that burundanga is odorless and tasteless.

What Is Burundanga?

Burundanga is the street version of the pharmaceutical drug scopolamine hydrobromide. It's made from the extracts of plants in the nightshade family such as henbane and jimsonweed. The drug is a deliriant, meaning it can induce symptoms of delirium such as disorientation, loss of memory, hallucinations, and stupor.

It is easy to see why the drug would be popular with criminals. In powdered form scopolamine can be easily mixed into foods or drinks, or blown directly into someone's face, forcing the victim to inhale it.

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. 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 rape.

History

In South America, burundanga is associated in popular lore with the potions 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 Wall Street Journal article published in 1995, the number of 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, the U.S. State Department still warns travelers to beware of "criminals in Colombia using disabling drugs to temporarily incapacitate tourists and others."

Urban Legends

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."

A Spanish-language email circulating in 2004 related the details of an incident that allegedly happened in Peru. The victim claimed she was approached by a one-legged man who asked her to help him make 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 escape. 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 to suffer ill effects by simply handling a piece of paper. 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, some with organs missing (a reference to the classic "kidney thefturban 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 cautionary tales.

Make no mistake, burundanga is real, and 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

  • “Dupes, Not Dopes.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Sept. 1999, www.theguardian.com/books/1999/sep/18/books.guardianreview3.
  • “Latin America: Victims of Drugging and Mugging.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 19 Feb. 2000, www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/722302/Latin-America-Victims-of-drugging-and-mugging.html.
  • “Singing to the Plants.” Burundanga, singingtotheplants.blogspot.com/2007/12/burundanga.html.