It’s happened again, this time in the southern expat-rich Ecuador city of Cuenca. According to the online newspaper Cuenca High Life, “Four Cuenca men were taken to a local hospital Saturday morning after friends found two of them unconscious in their historic district apartment. Police say that the men had been robbed of cash and other belongings.”
The men appeared to be the victims of some ladies who weren’t what they appeared to be. (Or, upon reflection, probably were.) The cause of the men’s distress was almost certainly scopolamine, the knockout drops derived from a common, weirdly attractive bush that have become the drug of choice for hustlers and much worse.
It can be a date rape drug used on unsuspecting women, but increasingly—as in this case–the criminals are women who target men in bars and private homes.
It’s a time-dishonored practice. The general concept has a long and shady past with its roots in the saga of an Irishman named Mickey Finn, a pickpocket and thief who owned the Lone Star Saloon on South State Street at the turn of the century in Chicago. The Chicago Crime Scenes Project calls him “After Al Capone…probably the most famous criminal name in Chicago history.”
If Mickey Finn didn’t invent the method, he probably perfected it. It wasn’t that complicated. When he opened the saloon in 1896, he teamed up with “Gold Tooth” Mary Thornton, a woman of ill repute. Slipping a dose of chloral hydrate in a barfly’s drink, she and other accomplices would soon haul the stuporous victim to the back, rob him, and throw him in an alley, where he would awaken the next morning with no memory of what hit him.
The authorities took a dim view of the scheme, and even though he paid protection money to the First Ward Alderman, Finn was arrested and the saloon closed in 1903.
But 15 years later, more than a hundred waiters were arrested in Chicago for the apparently widespread practice of poisoning the drinks of poor tippers. Although it was a different chemical, it was sold at the waiters’ union headquarters as “Mickey Finn Powder.”
The legend lived on.
The expats’ plight gets more publicity, but Ecuadorians themselves are being victimized too. There was the recent story of two young men near here, in the provincial capital of Ibarra, who struck up a conversation with two women. It’s the last memory they had before waking up in their car the next morning, ten miles away, with their cell phones and cash stolen.
Neighboring Colombia, though, has become the epicenter of weaponized scopolamine, and its street cousin burundanga, also known as Devil’s Breath, made from the borrachero shrub. There, in addition to its use in nightclubs and bars, even more sinister characters have invented the “paseo millonario,” a charming term meaning “millionaire’s promenade.” With the victim reduced to a zombie-like state, he is driven around (it’s almost always a man) to ATMs, obediently giving his passwords until his accounts are emptied. His purpose served, he may or may not be killed.
A Wall Street Journal article in 1995 said, “a person will be offered a soda or drink laced with the substance. 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.”
Several years ago, in Bogotá, I was out on a Sunday morning in search of breakfast when a well-dressed man approached me. He said he was with the secret police, showed me his card, and asked if I had a passport. I told him I kept it in my hotel, and he offered to walk me around the corner to a place that could make a duplicate. I quickly declined and went back into the hotel.
I don’t know whether I was in for a “paseo” or not, but the next day a military official at the US Embassy told me the Colombian secret police don’t dress like that and would never offer a card.
The scopolamine scourge, like most epidemics, lends itself to hyperbole. It probably cannot be administered through a drug-soaked business card or pamphlet, or by being blown into a victim’s face, despite many claims to the contrary. It is usually dumped into a drink in powder or liquid form, and alcohol would speed its effects.
Colombia has quickly become a far safer country than it was even a few years ago, especially with the FARC peace agreement in place, but it’s still not Chicago. I wouldn’t be caught dead in Chicago.
Or, upon reflection, I might.