Police have seized two Chinese women and a man in Paris suspected of using a powerful Colombian drug dubbed “the devil’s breath” that turns victims into “zombies” devoid of free will and rob them.
It is thought the three are part of an international Triad-style criminal gangrunning a multimillion-pound operation around the planet.
The women, aged 42 and 59, approached strangers in Paris’ 20th arrondissement and blew the substance into their faces. It is thought to contain scopolamine, a hazardous drug extracted from a South American tree related to deadly nightshade.
The Soviets and the CIA reportedly used it as a truth serum during the Cold War, while Joseph Mengeles, the Nazi physician dubbed the Angel of Death, had it imported from Colombia to use in interrogations. However, because of the drug’s chemical make-up, it also induces powerful hallucinations.
In strong doses it is lethal. Infamous murderer Dr Crippen is believed to have killed his wife Cora in 1910 using the drug before trying to flee to Canada.
Paris’ judicial police believe the Chinese suspects administered the substance on “dozens” of victims in the French capital in the first reported case of such crimes.
“The victims targeted, very often old, were accosted in the street by a first woman,” a source close to the investigation told Le Parisien newspaper. “This person claimed to be looking for a mysterious ‘Doctor Wang’ before being joined by her accomplice.
“They managed to isolate their victims, then got them to breathe in a mixture of plants on the grounds they had powerful curative qualities – even protecting them from misfortune.”
Once they inhaled, all the victims recounted falling into a kind of “hypnotic state under the total sway of their handlers,” said the investigative source.
“They then took advantage by getting the victims to take them to their home, where they asked them to put all their jewellery and money into a bag and hand it over to them.”
One Parisian victim lost €100,000 (£73,500) worth of valuables and cash in this way, police said.
The pair had reportedly been operating since spring in Paris. They were caught this week at the entrance to a metro station after they were identified by a member of one of the victims’ entourage. Both deny wrongdoing.
In a subsequent raid on their hotel room in Seine-Saint-Denis, a north-eastern suburb, police discovered an array of vials including “various Chinese medicinal substances as well as weighing scales, filters and gloves”. Analysis of the substance’s precise contents is under way.
A third 56-year old suspect, thought to have prepared the mysterious drug, was later arrested.
Chinese authorities informed their French counterparts that the trio belonged to a notorious Chinese criminal network, which “acts around the world and specialises in mental submission with the aid of unknown products,” according to Le Parisien. Other members have reportedly been arrested in China and South Korea.
The two women’s passports suggested that they had recently travelled to Madrid and Mexico.
Scopolamine is made from the seeds of a tree called Borrachero – roughly translated as “drunken binge” – which blooms with deceptively beautiful white and yellow flowers. It is mainly produced in Colombia via a chemical process that results in a white powder resembling cocaine.
Stories surrounding the drug are the stuff of urban legends, with some telling horror stories of how people were raped, forced to empty their bank accounts, and even coerced into giving up an organ.
Miriam Gutiérrez, a toxicology expert in Bogota, Colombia, told Vice News: “From a medical point of view, it’s the perfect substance to commit criminal acts because the victim won’t remember anything, and therefore won’t report anything.”
Dementia Black, a drug dealer, told the news website the effects of blowing it into someone’s face are almost instant. “It works in a flash. You wait for a minute for it to kick in and then you know you own that person. You can guide them wherever you want. It’s like they’re a child.”
According to the US state department, unofficial estimates put the number of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000.
“Scopolamine can render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more. In large doses, it can cause respiratory failure and death,” its website warns. “It is most often administered in liquid or powder form in foods and beverages. The majority of these incidents occur in night clubs and bars, and usually men, perceived to be wealthy, are targeted by young, attractive women.”
It is thought that other members of the gang may still be at large and that they have already sent “millions” of euros from crimes related to the drug back to China.