Someone gained control of you. You wake up days later, disoriented. You can’t remember much. Witnesses say you seemed normal, even happy. You learn you emptied your bank accounts and gave away your most treasured possessions. Now you’re bruised and broken, struggling to piece your world back together.
The scenario sounds terrifying. And suspiciously fictional. But devil’s breath, the drug that supposedly makes that nightmare possible, is real. But that’s the only thing we can say for sure about it.
Devil’s Breath, AKA scopolamine, is derived from the flowers that grow on the borrachero tree, native to South America. Stories of the drug date back to Colombian Indian tribal chiefs: upon their death, their wives and mistresses would be plied with devil’s breath and coaxed into their masters’ tombs. Written reports of the drug began surfacing around 2003 and was later recognized as a threat by American officials. The American embassy in Bogotá reportedly often deals with America tourists and U.S. government employees who’ve fallen prey to the drug. As of 2105, the State Department has warned Americans traveling to Colombia and Equador to be alert about devil’s breath.
A survey of emergency hospital admissions in Bogotá, Colombia, found that around 70% of patients drugged with scopolamine were robbed and around three percent sexually assaulted. Victims are often confused and suffer from amnesia, which makes it impossible for them to identify the people who drugged them.
Scopolamine has a long history of use, both legitimate and otherwise, in law enforcement and government intelligence. American police used it as a truth serum in the 1920s and 1930s until it was supplanted by sodium pentothal. The Czechoslovakian Communist government may have used it to extract false confessions in the 1950s.
Until the 1960s, scopolamine was administered to pregnant women to induce labor and was an ingredient in the over-the-counter asthma remedy Asthmador, which, in large doses, was found to induce hallucinations. Scopolamine’s still a big business in Ecuador, where it’s processed into hyoscine hydrobromide, a drug prescribed for seasickness and Parkinson’s disease.
It’s reportedly spread to Vietnam and Cambodia and may have reached Europe. In 2015, Paris police arrested two Chinese women and a male accomplice in connection with dozens of scopolamine enabled muggings. The women reportedly isolated and blew powder into the faces of elderly victims and stole thousands of Euros. Victims recall being in a “hypnotic state under the total sway of their handlers.”
The arrests renewed interest in devil’s breath and renewed skepticism about the drug’s mind control powers. Experts say that large doses of the drug can cause make people tired and disoriented, but only on a scale comparable to a benzodiazepine like Xanax. Val Curran, professor of pharmacology at UCL’s Clinical Pharmacology Unit, also said that while scopolamine may make someone suggestible, it can’t rob people of their free will.
The devil, they say, is in the details. With devil’s breath, the details are murky, giving the devil plenty of opportunities to do his dirty work.