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Pioneer procedure for Costa del Sol hospital to detect traces of date rape drug

Burundanga is what is known as a "chemical submission" drug.
Burundanga is what is known as a "chemical submission" drug. / SUR
  • From now on, staff at the hospital in Marbella will take samples of blood, urine and hair from victims of rapes and robberies whose symptoms indicate that they may have been given burundanga

She wakes up in a strange bed, and she is naked. "How did I get here?" she asks. She hadn't drunk much the evening before, only a couple of drinks, but she can't remember much about it. Just an occasional flash of memory. Yes, she remembers, there had been sex - but she hadn't agreed to it.

"The victims describe it as a dream-like experience, as if they had left their body and were watching something that was happening to them from afar, with no control over it," says a forensic doctor who has treated dozens of rape cases in which, from what the victims have said, he is almost certain that they had been given burundanga. He has never been able to confirm it, but that situation has now changed.

The police, legal and health authorites have set up a scheme at the Costa del Sol hospital which is a pioneer in Andalucía and almost unheard-of in Spain, to detect substances which cause "chemical submission," in other words leaving those who ingest them at the mercy of those who supply it.

"Everything is ready. From this weekend we will be able to take specimens in suspect cases," explains Dr Carmen Agüera, who works in the Emergency Department and is the head of the protocol at this hospital in Marbella. In fact, in two cases of rape which are being investigated in Marbella and Estepona at present, this has already been done.

In the former, a 19-year-old British woman was sexually assaulted on New Years Eve though she was unable to identify the attacker and police continue to study CCTV footage. The latter involves the rape of a 20-year-old girl, also foreign, who is both physically and mentally disabled. She was raped on a patch of wasteground while heading home after meeting someone she had met on Facebook for the first time. A French national, in his twenties, has been arrested.

The concern of the authorities is supported by the statistics: the Institute of Legal Medicine says there was a 35 per cent increase in the number of sexual assault cases registered in Malaga in 2016, and police and medical staff who had direct contact with the victims were becoming increasingly worried.

A year ago, a working group was set up with forensic scientist Sergio Fernández Gorostiza of the IML in Marbella, Dr Agüera, María Luisa Hortas and Miguel Cantero, director and coordinator of the Laboratory Service; and the hospital's legal adviser, Andrés Sedeño. Officials from the Guardia Civil and National Police also participate, led by the chief of the police headquarters in Marbella, Enrique Lamelas. The principal problem was in defining which substances cause chemical submission and how to detect them.

Burundanga, also known as 'devil's breath', is probably the most famous in Spain and "is a mixture of different substances; some of them come from drugs used in hospitals as anaesthetics or pre-anaesthetics, and they have a hypnotic-sedative effect," explains José Caba, the provincial director of the IML.

Although it is sometimes called scopolamine, an alkaloid which is present in solanaceaea plants and is the active ingredient in some medications, they are not exactly the same; scopolamine is just one of the active ingredients used to create burundanga. There are also cases of rape after the use of gamma hydroxybutyrate, better known as GHB or liquid ecstasy, a powerful depressant of the central nervous system. "The problem with these substances," says José Caba, "is that they are eliminated very quickly from the body and they are very difficult to detect."

That is why it is so important for victims to report what has happened and for the doctors to take samples as quickly as possible. "We are now going to hold training sessions for all our staff so they know what samples to take, the forms that have to be filled in and all the steps that need to be taken," says Dr Agüera.

The protocol will be applied when signs which could indicate chemical submission are observed. In all cases, the woman will have to sign an informed consent form. Then, there are three different possibilities. If less than 24 hours have passed since she has possibly ingested the drug, samples will be taken of blood (four tubes), urine (two) and hair (which is always taken from the head).

If the incident occurred between 24 and 72 hours earlier, only urine and hair samples will be taken, because the drug disappears very rapidly from the bloodstream. If more than 72 hours have passed, only the hair sample will be of any use.

Other crimes

Although initially the focus was on rapes, the protocol has been extended to cover other crimes, such as robberies from homes where victims felt nauseous upon waking, had bad headaches and slurred speech, or reported having been in such a deep sleep that they didn't realise that the thief was rummaging in their bedside table.

In a specific case in Marbella the prosecution authorities have asked for a five-year prison sentence to be given to two women who are accused of having drugged a man in order to ransack his house.

A meeting will be held in thenear future with the legal, police and health authorities about extending the protocol to the other hospitals in the province. "We believe it will be very beneficial to society because it will prevent impunity in these crimes," says Dr Agüera.