Colombia's deadly case of Tinder and the memory-erasing drug

The ‘suspicious’ deaths of eight Americans in Medellín between November and December 2023 prompted the US Embassy to recommend refraining from using dating apps in Colombia. Picture: AFP

The ‘suspicious’ deaths of eight Americans in Medellín between November and December 2023 prompted the US Embassy to recommend refraining from using dating apps in Colombia. Picture: AFP

Published Jan 24, 2024


All Israeli expat Omer Bloch knows for sure about his Tinder date in the Colombian city of Medellin is that she was "beautiful" - and used a powerful drug to knock him out and rob him.

A recent spate of what the US Embassy termed "suspicious" deaths of eight American men in Medellin has cast a spotlight on the dangers foreigners face using dating apps in the city.

"I matched with a girl on Tinder. Just another girl, I thought. Just another date," recalls the 28-year-old businessman of his 2021 encounter.

After their dinner, he remembers they returned to his house for a beer, which tasted more "bittery" than usual, and then he remembers going in "for the kiss."

He woke up the next day at noon, woozy and struggling to walk.

"She took my iPad, my phone, my wallet, my credit cards, my ID. Everything but my laptop," he said.

Still, he was one of the lucky ones.

'That could have been me'

The US Embassy said it was aware of the deaths of eight citizens in the city between November 1 and December 31, 2023, several of which involved the use of dating apps.

"Numerous US citizens in Colombia have been drugged, robbed, and even killed by their Colombian dates," read a travel advisory, warning of a drug being used to incapacitate victims.

In one case, Asian-American comedian and activist Tou Ger Xiong, 50, was kidnapped after going to meet a woman he matched with online in December, the prosecutor's office said.

His kidnappers phoned a friend of his in the United States demanding $2,000 (about R38,000). The victim was later found dead from "wounds caused by a blunt object."

"That could have easily happened to me," said Bloch, who still lives in Medellin.

Beautiful, deadly plant

Medical tests showed Bloch had been given scopolamine, or Devil's Breath, an odourless powder that victims say puts you into a zombie-like state, and which can prove fatal.

Diana Pava, member of the Research Group in Psychoactive Substances of the National University, shows the fruit and seeds of the Brugmansia arborea tree, which is used for the production of scopolamine. Picture: AFP

Scopolamine is extracted from the nightshade plant Brugmansia, which boasts large, pale, trumpet-shaped flowers.

"The plant is widely distributed throughout the country. In urban areas it is common to find it in gardens because it has a very beautiful flower," explained Diana Pava, a toxicologist with a research group into psychoactive substances at the National University.

Criminals extract the drug from the black seeds of a fruit found on the plant and slip it into their victim's drinks.

Ingesting it, "people can feel sleepy. Others get amnesia... there is also tachycardia, hypertension and seizures," said Pava, adding that in high doses - and combined with alcohol - it can be lethal.

In 2022, prosecutors recorded the death of a foreigner in Medellin due to "overdose of a toxic substance," without naming the drug.

More tourists, more deaths

Birthplace of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellin overcame the drug violence of the 90s to become a coveted Latin American destination for tourists and expats.

Bloch describes himself as a digital nomad, and, like many foreigners, resides in the El Poblado neighbourhood, where luxurious residential towers rise against a mountainous backdrop.

Tourism has boomed in the Andean city, with foreign visitor numbers mushrooming from 212,000 in 2015 to 1.4 million in 2022.

But violent deaths "increase as the number of visitors increases," William Vivas, a human rights defender with the mayor's office, told AFP.

The office recorded the deaths of 32 foreigners in 2023, seven percent more than the previous year.

In 2022, the prosecutor's office dealt with 82 cases of foreigners being robbed with the use of a "toxic substance."

The tourism boom has brought with it a rise in prostitution, which is legal in Colombia and lures so-called sexpats looking for a good time.

"We position ourselves as a very cool place," but Medellin has also been sold as "a place of great permissiveness," said Jazmin Santa, a member of a group fighting sexual exploitation.

When Bloch shared his story on social media, he found little sympathy from locals, many of whom blame foreigners seeking sex tourism for their own woes.

"I agree with the locals. There are gringos that come here and are complete pieces of shit - they take advantage of women.

"But then the flipside is what happens to the good guys that get scoped," he said, referring to the drug.