CAUCA, Colombia—The lifeless body of California resident Paul Nguyen, 27, was found on a street corner in the seedy Cucaracho neighborhood of Medellín on the morning of Nov. 10. He had neither cash nor ID on him, but authorities knew who he was right away, as they’d been alerted to his disappearance and given his description the night before.
Nguyen was traveling with a friend on his first trip to Medellín, where he’d already visited the tomb of Pablo Escobar. The Cal State Fullerton grad was last seen on a date with a mysterious young woman he had met on the popular online dating app Tinder, according to local media reports. (Disclaimer: Tinder is owned by Match Group, which was formerly owned by The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC).
Based on information leaked to The Daily Beast from Nguyen’s social media accounts and the woman’s dating profile, she appears to have gone by the name María Luisa, although that could have been an alias.
“We’ll get along if you’re an extrovert and make me laugh a lot,” María Luisa wrote on her profile. She described herself as a 5-foot-1.5-inch, 24-year-old apolitical Catholic with a college degree. “I’m a very extroverted woman who likes to meet new people [and] escape the monotony,” she said on the dating app, adding that she “likes animals and babies” and “believes in love at first sight.”
In photos apparently taken by Paul and shared with The Daily Beast, she had dyed red hair and was dressed in a denim jacket, dark jeans, and white sneakers on the night they went out for their date.
(The Nguyen family had not responded to interview requests by the time this article went to press.)
The couple allegedly met on the evening of Nov. 9 in the up-scale Poblado neighborhood. When Paul didn’t return to the hotel that night, his friend grew concerned. He contacted a Medellín resident who had offered to show Paul and his friend around town. That resident went straight to the police, but was told 72 hours had to elapse before a missing persons report could be filed.
“I said ‘Imagine what could be done to a [kidnapping victim] in half an hour,’” the resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Daily Beast. “How can they expect us to wait three days?”
He then decided to take matters into his own hands. By reviewing photos Paul had posted on social media the night he went missing, and showing those pictures around town, he said he was able to find the discotheque where the couple had gone for drinks after leaving the restaurant. When he tracked down the waiter who had served María and Paul, a new clue emerged.
“I told [the waiter] that I am looking for this boy and this girl. And he says that they were here and that he waited on them. But he thought it was very strange that [Paul] had a lot of cash in his hand. Yet when he paid the bill [María] told him to pay by card.”
The waiter said that the last time he saw Paul, he and María were getting into a car. His credit card was used multiple times at an ATM during the night, and $500 was sent via Paypal to a woman named Natalia Andrea Arias at around five a.m., Vice News reported.
His body was found just hours later, about five miles from his last known location. El Universo newspaper quoted Nguyen’s family as stating he had been robbed and poisoned.
According to the Medellín resident, who stayed in touch with police after sharing the information he had gathered in his search for Nyugen, the Californian died of an overdose of the knockout drug scopolamine, also known as “Devil’s Breath.” His claim was backed up by an officer within Medellin’s security forces, who agreed to speak to The Daily Beast only on the condition of anonymity.
“In the initial report that [we] had access to, they [the pathologists] confirmed that it had been scopolamine,” the source said. He added that a full toxicology report is still pending, and said that the scopolamine might have been mixed with other drugs to create a lethal “cocktail” that led to Nguyen’s death.
Social media deceptions and catphishing crimes are nothing new. But Colombian gangs have perfected the dark art of the honeytrap, and scopolamine is often their drug of choice for rolling wealthy paisanos and foreign tourists alike.
Also known by its street name of burundanga, scopolamine has been called “the most dangerous drug in the world” because of the trance-like state that overtakes its victims and the ensuing amnesia. Those effects combine to make the drug ideal for use by criminal gangs.
“Many men who may be having difficulty finding love or a potential life partner in the cities and countries where they reside become gullible and easy prey for violent gangs in Colombia,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former overseas bureau chief, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“These criminals often use the internet and beautiful women to lure them into elaborate and dangerous situations in order to rob and kill them,” Vigil added, describing scopolamine as having hallucinogenic and euphoric properties.
A travel warning put out by the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) estimates the number of “annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000.”
The OSAC report states that the Devil’s Breath can render victims “unconscious for 24 hours or more. In large doses, it can cause respiratory failure and death. 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.”
Vigil said that the growing popularity of online dating apps has made it far easier for gangs to find their targets. “It’s a tremendously good lure for these criminal gangs to use a beautiful woman,” Vigil said, likening the practice to that of “a spider luring a fly into a web.”
According to the statistics compiled by the security secretary in Medellín, there have been 190 such cases involving scopolamine so far this year, most stemming from encounters on Tinder and Grindr. Twenty-seven foreigners have also been killed in the city in 2022, and at least four of those cases involved scopolamine poisoning.
Nelson Matta, a journalist at Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper, often covers scopolamine-related crimes as part of his beat. He told The Daily Beast that it’s not always the criminals’ intention to kill the victims.
“[The criminals] sedate them until the point where they can extract the information from him by decimating his will. However, these organizations do not have experts in drug handling among their members, therefore they often make mistakes that end up being fatal for their victims,” Matta said.
The journalist mentioned another high-profile incident involving a Canadian professor, Dr. Ramazan Gencay, who went missing in Medellín in December of 2018. According to Matta, Gencay—like Nguyen—also fell for a woman on Tinder and was last seen in the company of unknown individuals at a local nightclub.
“He fell into the clutches of a gang that supplied him with [Devil’s Breath] in his drink and unfortunately they supplied him with more than the needed dose and he died from the situation,” Matta said. “It was one of the best-known cases in the city of Medellín in recent years.”
Medically, scopolamine is used in very low doses to treat nausea and motion sickness. Its extract is derived from the borrachero shrub, which grows wild in the mountains of Central and South America. Ease of availability and difficulty in detection are some of the reasons the drug is so often used to incapacitate victims.
Dr. Hugo Gallego, a toxicologist at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, said crime groups are now experimenting with different formulas that combine scopolamine with commercial tranquilizers, sedatives, and sleep-inducing drugs like zopiclone.
Gallego also said that criminals are experimenting with other delivery methods beyond just slipping victims a mickey, such as infusing Devil’s Breath into “candies, cookies, and chewing gum.” According to him, it would only take about a 100 milligram dose of scopolamine to be fatal once ingested.
“Criminals like scopolamine because it alters the will, it is a substance that makes [the victim] do what the criminal wants. And it has a great impact on memory, so that the person does not remember what happened,” said Dr. Jorge Marín of Medellín’s SOMA Toxicology Clinic.
“Every day I treat patients intoxicated with scopolamine, and most of those [cases] are the result of theft.”
As for Paul Nguyen, the anonymous security source said the investigation into his murder was ongoing and officers were reviewing footage from security cameras in order to find the vehicle he was last seen boarding. Officers hope to learn “where it came from, where it went, and the route it followed,” he said.
In the wake of Paul’s death, his sister Amy started a GoFundMe page with the hope of raising enough money to bring her brother’s body home for a funeral service. At the time this story went to press, she had already raised more than $36,000.
“[My brother] is a victim of a cruel and senseless crime. These people chose money and greed over a single thought of my brother’s life,” Amy wrote on the GoFundMe site. “Paul was my older brother who was always there to take care of me… He was my shoulder to cry on. I hope everyone who knew Paul stays strong.”