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Lured by Dates, Tourists in Colombia Can Face Drugging, Robbery, and Assault

Romance can be challenging even at the best of times, but a rising number of deaths, drugging incidents, and robberies in Colombia show it can also be dangerous.

In the last two months of 2023, eight U.S. citizens visiting Medellín, Colombia, died in suspicious circumstances involving either involuntary drugging overdose or suspected homicide, according to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. While the deaths are not believed to be directly linked, the circumstances are similar—several involved the use of online dating applications.

“Criminals use dating apps to lure victims to meet in public places such as hotels, restaurants, and bars, and then later assault and rob them,” the embassy warned. “Numerous U.S. citizens in Colombia have been drugged, robbed, and even killed by their Colombian dates.

“Over the last year, the Embassy has seen an increase in reports of incidents involving the use of online dating applications to lure victims, typically foreigners, for robbery by force or using sedatives to drug and rob individuals,” the advisory continued. “The Embassy regularly receives reports of these types of incidents occurring in major cities, including, but not limited to, Medellín, Cartagena, and Bogota. These types of crimes routinely go underreported as victims are embarrassed and do not want to follow through with the judicial process.”

Investigators note that criminals often take electronics, jewelry, bank cards, and cash, but they leave the victim’s passport to encourage individuals to leave the country without reporting the crime.

In June 2023, the U.S. Embassy in Colombia issued a warning about the increasing use of sedatives to drug and rob individuals—especially foreigners, who are targeted through online dating apps and in bars or nightclubs. Investigators say that the criminal groups luring victims through dating apps are unlikely to be affiliated with large-scale organized crime but are typically small, unaffiliated crews from poor neighborhoods.

In the last three months of 2023, the number of robberies of foreign visitors in Colombia increased by 200 percent and deaths by 29 percent, the BBC reported.

“One of the most popular methods to target unsuspecting individuals is through online dating applications,” the warning said. “Individuals match with dates and there is an agreement to meet. This meeting can either initially start in a public place or at the residence/hotel of the victim. Eventually, a sedative is introduced to the victim, leaving them disoriented and sedated so they are easily robbed.”

An odorless, tasteless, memory-blocking drug called scopolamine (known as Burundanga in Colombia and referred to as “devil’s breath”) is frequently used in these crimes, and it can render a victim unconscious for up to 24 hours. It also makes victims unusually open to suggestion, including agreeing to hand over a wallet or share passwords, The New York Times reported. In large doses, it can cause respiratory failure or death. The drug is easily mixed into food or beverages, and Colombian criminals often mix it with benzodiazepines—depressants used to treat insomnia or anxiety, such as Valium or Xanax—to further incapacitate their victims.

In one case cited by the Times, a travel blogger’s date served him a bowl of soup. The blogger only remembered eating two spoonfuls; he doesn’t remember anything else from that night.  

In a darker case, U.S. citizen Tou Ger Xiong was held for ransom, stabbed, beaten, and then thrown from a cliff. Four people were arrested in his killing, including a 19-year-old woman who prosecutors say was dating Tou Ger with the goal of stealing money, The Washington Post reported.

Tourist destinations—such as the popular city of Medellín, located in a valley of the Andes Mountains—are a big draw for both travelers who want to party at low cost and for criminals who see a wealth of opportunity. Nearly 1.4 million visitors (around 40 percent of whom were American) stopped by Medellín in 2023, according to city data.

The drug-aided robberies are undercutting Colombia’s efforts to become more tourist-friendly and shake off its reputation of drugs and violence, the Times reported. The government even started offering digital nomad visas to encourage foreigners to live in the country for longer periods.

The U.S. State Department issued a level three advisory about Colombia, recommending that Americans reconsider travel to the country because of crime and tourism, as well as civil unrest and kidnapping risks. In light of the recent crimes, travelers are being told to avoid isolated locations to meet dates, to let people know where they are going and with whom, and to establish policies with hotel or concierge personnel about what information visitors should provide before being authorized entry to a residence or hotel room.