Does the 'Devil's Breath' Drug Really Exist?

The "Devil's Breath" may sound like a comic book character or something you only get after a night of heavy drinking, but what it actually refers to is perhaps even stranger—a Columbian drug which can apparently transform its victims into "zombies", who can be easily manipulated and made to do whatever they're told.

This week, Parisian police arrested two Chinese women and one man who are suspected of robbing dozens of people using the powerful drug. According to The Telegraph newspaper, the women approached individuals, mostly elderly people, in the Paris's 20th arrondissement, before blowing the substance in their faces and taking advantage of their victims' weakened state after. The three suspects are believed to be part of an international criminal network which "specialises in mental submission," according to French newspaper Le Parisien.

A source close to the investigation told Le Parisien that, "They would take the [victims] to their home, where they asked them to put all their jewellery and money into a bag and hand it over to them." Those who have been targeted said they recall being in a "hypnotic state under the total sway of their handlers," the source also reportedly disclosed.

The Devil's Breath's real name is scopolamine and is made using extracts from a tree known popularly as the "borrachero" tree, which loosely translates to the "get-you-drunk" tree. The seeds, flowers and pollen of the tree are known to possess hallucinogenic qualities when consumed or inhaled but how effective, or widespread its usage is, is a point of contention.

The use of scopolamine as a 'truth serum' during interrogations was first tested in the U.S. in 1922 by Robert House, a Texan obstetrician, according to the CIA website. After carrying out an interview with two prisoners who were given the drug, House concluded that those under its influence "cannot create a lie ... and there is no power to think or reason." He went on to publish several articles about its use and is sometimes referred to as "father of truth serum." However, according to the CIA statement, "only a handful of cases in which scopolamine was used for police interrogation came to public notice," although it points out that one police writer claims that simply the threat of using scopolamine during interrogation has resulted in suspects confessing their crimes. There are even rumours that Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi physician, used it in experiments, though these have not been verified.

Although exact data on the use of scopolamine in Latin America is hard to come by, Wired reported that in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, 70 percent of patients who have been drugged with scopolamine had also been robbed, while 3 percent had been sexually assaulted. A Colombian psychiatrist talking to Wired described how the drug "makes victims disoriented and sedated so they can be easily robbed." In the U.S. State Department's 2014 crime and safety report on Bogotá it claims that "unofficial estimates put the number of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000." It goes on to say that the victims of robbery as result of the drug are "usually men, perceived to be wealthy, are targeted by young, attractive women."

Ryan Duffy, a reporter for Vice, who visited Colombia to investigate the use of scopolamine, had initially planned to try it but was so shocked by the stories he heard, he quickly changed his mind. "The producer and cameraman ... flew down to Bogota ahead of me to confirm some meetings and start laying down the groundwork," he wrote in an article accompanying his documentary about the drug. "By the time I arrived a few days later, things had changed dramatically. Their first few days in the country had apparently been such a harrowing montage of freaked-out dealers and unimaginable horror stories about scopolamine that we decided I was absolutely not going to be doing the drug."

However, it seems that not all medical experts are convinced by the stories and myths surrounding scopolamine. Speaking to The Guardian newspaper, Val Curran, professor of pharmacology at UCL's Clinical Pharmacology Unit, said: "You get these scare stories and they have no toxicology, so nobody knows what it is. The idea that it is scopolamine is a bit far-fetched, because it could be anything."