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“Dragon blood” or “edible brain”? How Russia prosecutes enthusiasts of Peruvian medicine.


Text: Amalia Zatari 

Source of the original text in Russian:

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For three years already the herbalist and healer of Peruvian origin, Daniel Diaz-Strukov has been in jail. He is facing lifelong imprisonment for attempted drug trafficking. Strukov ordered Peruvian “Dragon Blood”, a dietary supplement, which is sold freely in Russia. Customs officers discovered in the dietary supplement a substance recognized as psychotropic and banned from free distribution in Russia. In this article, BBC uses Strukov’s case as an example to explain how adherents of Peruvian medicine are accused of drug smuggling in Russia.

On March 2, 2017, 43-year-old Daniel Diaz-Strukov came to the Post Office in Tekstilshchiki. Strukov is an ordinary dark-haired man of medium height with black eyes and a reddish beard, dressed in jeans, a hoodie and a stylish gray coat. The only item of his appearance that hinted at his practice were the wooden bracelets on his writsts.

Strukov was waiting for a box from a friend in Peru with 11 bottles of “dragon blood” – a healing brew. With this tool, the herbalist and healer was going to treat his patients in Russia. Strukov discovered the box with sham bottles made by the customs officers. He was detained at the post office, immediately. He then received questions such as – “Who are the accomplices?” and “Where is the rest?”

DMT in Cone Forest

- Your grandparents say: try camomile, and you will get better. Similarly, I take a glass, mix in plants and see whether or not they help – Strukov explained to security officials what he was doing.

“There are drugs in this package,” the operative told the detainee.

“There are no drugs,” Strukov said confidently.

 “You did not know about the drugs and for this reason you are denying that they were there?”

“There are no narcotic drugs,” he repeated, convinced that they had sent him an ordinary concoction including extracts of several types of trees growing in South America.

The Peruvian parcel with “dragon blood” was opened by customs officers at Sheremetyevo. In the box were bottles wrapped in newspapers. The bottles contained a thick liquid of a brown color. An analysis showed that 10 bottles out of 11 contained dimethyltryptamine – DMT. This is a psychedelic is listed as a class I narcotic – a list of narcotic drugs whose trafficking is prohibited in Russia. The customs officers poured the brew into the “Cone Forest” water bottles, preserving the liquid as evidence, and made a fake to detain the recipient.

On the night of March 3, security officials brought Strukov home to his rented apartment on Krymsky Val. During the search, in addition to many different non-narcotic plants, herbs and oils,  the officials found flour from coca leaves and the ground cactus San Pedro. After the search in addition to smuggling, an attempt to sell narcotics was added to Strukov’s case.

The volume of drugs discovered in Strukov’s appartment was calculated by forensic experts of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Moscow Region. The quantity of narcotics was measured by using the total weight of the mixtures in which they were found: 2.7 kg of flour from coca leaves became 2.7 kg of pure cocaine. Eight kg of ground cactus was counted as eight kg of pure mescaline. The fact that the narcotic substances are found in extremely small amounts in these plants did not concern the authorities. The volume of DMT was also calculated by field investigators by the total weight of the dried residue of “dragon blood” – this is how the size of prohibited substances found in liquids is measured in Russia. It turned out to a total of 2.7 kg psychedelic.

Strukov was accused of smuggling and attempted drug trafficking on a large scale (part 4 of article 229.1 and part 5 of article 228.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation). There was no established evidence that Strukov sold anyone drugs, but the prosecution insisted on this article as well since they found coca leaf flour packaged in bags.

“My Cultural Mistake”

Strukov, a citizen of Peru, Russia and Spain, celebrated his 45th birthday in the Zelenograd detention center No. 12. In his cell he did not have a radio or a television.

Strukov was born in Moscow. His mother is Russian and his father is from Peru. When he was 11 years old, his parents had to return to his father’s homeland. The child was left to study in Russia. For the holidays, little Danya went to Peru, and in Moscow he lived in a communal apartment with his neighbor, Lidia Sozonova, who took custody of him.

After graduating, Strukov went to Spain, and received a Spanish passport (Peruvians were given citizenship because of Spain’s colonial past). He got married there and in 2005, he had a daughter. Strukov often traveled to Peru, studied his family tree and the culture of his ancestors. There he found a healing center where shamans worked. As he was trilingual in Russian, English and Spanish Strukov was readily hired because the center needed an interpreter for clients that came from all over the world.

As he was working, Strukov learned healing practices from the local shamans. After one of the meditations, he realized that in Russia people suffer from incurable diseases, age and die early. Strukov decided to return to his homeland – to share the knowledge of the ancient peoples of South America with the Russians. In 2015, after receiving a completion certificate from of a course on natural medicine in a Lima clinic, he moved back to Moscow.

In the Russian capital, Strukov worked as a kindergarten teacher, and in his free time he gave lectures on Peruvian medicine, translated the speeches of visiting shamans. In addition, Strukov himself used Peruvian techniques to heal people in Moscow. To help patients, he went into meditation, using, for example, the San Pedro cactus. For those he treated, the herbalist gave advice and made diets for them.

“If I didn’t have the right vegetables, fruits, plants, I ordered them from different countries where local farmers prepared them according to ancient traditions and sent them to me. I was detained when I received such an order. In prison, I realized my cultural mistake that here, in Russia, many plants are banned, there is a different religion here, and what I did may not be suitable,” – Strukov laments in a letter to BBC, which he passed on through his lawyer. “I should have sent those seeking assistance to Peru, instead of using the techniques in Russia. “

In the pre-trial detention center, Strukov’s health deteriorated. In a letter to the BBC, he said that due to trips to court hearings, during which prisoners were “in an uncomfortable, inhumane position,” he developed a curvature of the spine, a hernia in the lumbar region, and his sciatic nerve was pinched.

Without proper treatment in the pre-trial detention center, Strukov had to collect and align his spine on his own. In prison, the herbalist practices yoga, meditation, and treats himself with essential oils that are brought by his friends.

The Spanish Embassy in Russia is aware of the Strukov case, the diplomatic mission staff even came to some court hearings. “We communicate with the Spanish consul. They even help a little, sometimes every two months they send 50 euros,” Lidia Sozonova, the former guardian of Strukov, told BBC. Now Sozonova is assisting in his criminal case: she goes to jail and court, collects money for a lawyer. She and other friends of Strukov also tried to contact the embassy of Peru, but they did not respond to their letters.

The Russian BBC sent requests to the embassies of Spain and Peru, but has not yet received a response.

“Dragon Blood”with Psychedelic

Since Strukov is facing life imprisonment, his case at the Moscow Regional Court has been evaluated by a jury since July 2018. This is the first case in Russia when a criminal case involving DMT is being conducted with the participation of jurors.

Strukov admits to making a “cultural mistake”, but not to smuggling of narcotics. “I ordered medicine for people who asked me for it, but by no means drugs,” he said during an interrogation in court. According to Strukov, “dragon blood” was needed for patients in Moscow suffering from liver and stomach problems.

In court, Strukov’s acquaintances that use the “dragon blood” brew were questioned as witnesses. They said that as a dietary supplement “dragon blood” is freely sold in Russia (it can be found in Russian online stores – BBC confirms).

Several friends of Strukov also admitted to the BBC that they brought “dragon blood” from Peru in small jars and that they use it to treat cuts and scratches, since it has a regenerating effect.

The Peruvian Aristoteles Vasquez Ramos, from whom Strukov ordered the “dragon blood”, was interrogated at the request of a Russian court in the prosecutor’s office of Lima. He said that he ordered the brew from Olga Mori, who lives in the jungle. She agreed to make it because when Strukov lived in Peru, he helped the children of the Shipibo community. For example, he brought them school supplies.

Strukov’s defense claims that dimethyltryptamine, which is not part of the “dragon blood” brew could have gotten into the mixture due to the conditions in which it was prepared in the Peruvian jungle. “Since DMT, as part of some lianas, is not prohibited in Peru, Olga Mori is unlikely to wash the dishes,” suggested lawyer Andrei Smirnov in a conversation with the BBC. “She used what was readily available and in that she made the “dragon blood”. “

Anthropologist Marina Orlova agrees: “In a laboratory that sells” dragon blood ” and distributes it in standard packaging, this is unlikely to happen, but in a village where there are no special dishes and medicine is transferred to soda bottles, anything can happen” .

How much to weigh in grams?

Strukov’s defense has a chance to mitigate the charges because independent-expert chemist Marina Kushniruk from the Versiya bureau was invited to court. She noted that the Ministry of Internal Affairs had incorrectly determined the types of narcotic drugs found at Strukov’s. For example, flour from coca leaves was deemed cocaine, although cocaine is a substance extracted from coca leaves and synthesized in a laboratory. Only 1-2% of the leaves themselves contain cocaine. Similarly, the San Pedro cactus flour contains mescaline, but in and of itself is not pure mescaline.

The court listened to Kushniruk’s arguments and ordered a second examination, which was held in March in the laboratory under the Ministry of Justice. The examination showed that the mixtures found in Strukov’s apartment contained a small amount of mescaline, from 0.1 to 0.3%, and cocaine from 0.1 to 0.5%. Now the court is waiting for the results of a genetic examination. If the genetic examination shows that the mixtures seized from the herbalist are crushed parts of plants (coca leaves and San Pedro cactus) then Strukov will likely be re-qualified for a lighter accusation.

If a qualitative examination for the presence of cocaine and mescaline in Russia is possible, with DMT the situation is more complicated. Chromatography is a completed with a highly sensitive device that detects the presence of a drug, even if it is present only in trace residues. However, the device doesn’t provide the exact quantity.

As for cocaine and mescaline, the experts were able to determine its volume in the mixture, since Russia has standard analytical samples of these substances, – explained Strukov’s lawyer, Andrew Smirnov, to BBC. There is no analytical sample of DMT in Russia. Therefore, it is impossible to determine how much DMT was in the “Dragon Blood” bottles ordered by Strukov.

According to the defence, it is also impossible to determine whether there were leftovers of DMT in the decoction or instead of the “Dragon Blood” the herbalist received ayahuasca, a Peruvian hallucinogenic drink, which is also brewed from plants containing DMT. The defense argument is supported by the fact that both examinations failed to reveal harmine in the “Dragon Blood”, which is an essential component of ayahuasca.

At the same time, the examination of the Ministry of Justice showed that mushrooms grew up in the bottles where the “Dragon Blood” was transferred. This happened due to improper storage of the decoction. As a court independent expert, Dmitry Gladyshev, explained, the presence of mushrooms in the “Dragon Blood” means that the DMT in it has a natural origin, not synthetic.

The Strukov’s defense was asking the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Justice to produce an analytical sample of DMT, but this request was rejected. The defense sent a similar request to the Government, which arrived there less than a month ago.

“If they refuse, we will perhaps start a civil action against the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Government”, – said Strukov’s lawyer, Andrew Smirnov, to BBC, – “According to chemistry experts, an analytical sample of DMT could be easily made, it is not a big deal”.

“Cat’s Claw” and five years of imprisonment as a gift

On December 18, the Supreme Court of Russia will hear the appeal of 40-year-old Dmitry Gorbunov, who is involved in another large-scale DMT-trafficking case. The trial court sentenced him to five years of incarceration, although the prosecutor requested three times as much – 15 years.

Gorbunov is now under recognizance. He was flying to trials from Novokuznetsk to Moscow Oblast.  It is usually the case that officers in Moscow’s airports find decoctions with DMT, and therefore the cases are investigated and heard in Moscow Oblast.

The Gorbunov’s interest in Peruvian medicine began in 2014 during his trip to Peru. The local shamans cured his sinusitis, and then he started to read a lot about Peruvian drugs and shamanism after returning to Russia, – as his wife, Olga, told BBC.

In 2015, Gorbunov read on the Internet that a shaman Jose, a world-class healer and the head of a medical clinic in Terapoto, arrives to Moscow from Peru. Jose has traveled all over the world with seminars and treatment courses, and Dmitry Gorbunov decided to attend his seminar in Moscow and meet him personally.

In 2018, the Gorbunovs invited Jose and his son to visit Novokuznetsk and even paid for the tickets. “We planned to take them on a trip to Altai and show them our places of power, because Jose is fond of natural energy. Jose knows that Dima (Dmitriy Gorbunov) has problems with his kidneys, and Jose was going to conduct a ceremony in Altai”, – Olga says.

Jose sent a bottle of decoction for the ceremony to Gorbunov from Peru. The label on the bottle said Una De Gato (“Cat’s Claw”). The border officers found DMT and harmine in the decoction. Gorbunov was accused in large-scale drug trafficking because of 872 grams of decoction.

The Gorbunov’s wife believes that the leftovers of DMT could get into the decoction, however, as in the Strukov’s case, it is impossible to determine whether this is true or not, because there are no standard samples of this psychedelic in Russia.

The Gorbunov’s defense insisted that Gorbunov was going to use the decoction in medicinal purposes and did not know about the presence of substances prohibited in Russia in it.

DMT can gobble your brain up

Dimethyltryptamine has a fairly wide spectrum of action. Due to its proximity to serotonin 5HT2A receptors, DMT can cause psychedelic experiences.

The humankind is familiar with this substance for a long period of time – several kinds of tropical plants contain DMT. In Russian latitudes, DMT is found in the fly agaric.

According to a chemist who wishes to remain anonymous, DMT may play some role in protecting cells from hypoxia that occurs at the time of death. In other words, thanks to DMT, cells are more likely to survive stress, including clinical death. According to the recent analyses of the substance, people may have near-death experiences under the influence of DMT.

“The effect of a pure synthetic DMT lasts about 15 minutes but it is perceived as an eternity”, – a man who tried this substance in its pure form said to BBC, – “DMT is not a joke at all”.

Answering the question if he would try DMT once again, the BBC’s interviewee said “fuck no”. “It is horrible experience. You literally feel how you die and it is ominous. It is possible to say that DMT can easily gobble your brain up”, – he says.

Ayahuasca contains two components – the homonymous vine containing harmine, and another DMT-containing plant. When taken, harmine does not allow DMT to break down, which is why ayahuasca’s influence lasts for several hours, unlike the 15-minute action of pure DMT.

Olga Gorbunova claims that her husband participated in only completely legal activities and did not use any substances prohibited in Russia. “Before Jose’s seminars in Moscow, there was information everywhere that in respect to our laws and traditions, the shaman conducts seminars using only plants which are not prohibited in Russia. Apparently, he conducted seminars here using medicines with no chakruna (a DMT-containing plant), because everything was presented openly and officially. Thus, my husband expected the same approach to treatment when Jose came to visit us” – she explained.

The shaman, conducting illegal ayahuasca ceremonies in Russia and speaking with BBC on condition of anonymity, admitted that a ceremony can indeed be conducted without DMT-containing plants. Until the end of 2018, the ceremonies of ayahuasca with harmine only were absolutely legal in Russia, – he notes. Then, harmine was added to the list of prohibited substances.

He says that now ceremonies are conducted more and more often, as more and more people of different ages and professions are interested in them such as creative people, musicians and artists, and office employees and businessmen, “who have achieved everything in life and do not know what to do next”.

“Usually people feel sick during the ceremony, it is a part of the process. It cleans you from up and down. It always happens, exceptions are rare. The bucket is always beside and toilet is available. The body is cleaned until you the one feels bile” – the shaman who asked for anonymity admits in a conversation with BBC.

Only Putin can save

According to the Federal Customs Service, 54 cases of DMT trafficking were identified in Russia from 2014 to 2019. Five of them took place in 2019 – the border officers arrested 2.13 kg of psychedelics. It is interesting that the substance is sold in doses of just 0.1 to 0.5 g on the black market.

In Russia, the prison sentences for DMT smuggling in decoction have taken place since 2016. Those sentences are usually severe. For example, in December 2016, Nikolenko was sentenced to 12 years of incarceration in a maximum-security prison in December 2016. Earlier in 2016, the Moscow Oblast Court sentenced Fadeev to four and a half years in a maximum-security prison, but the Supreme Court increased his sentence to ten years on appeal.

In 2017, the Moscow Oblast Court sentenced a 66-year-old Brazilian shaman, Eduardo Shianca, to six and a half years in a maximum-security prison. Shianca, like Nikolenko and Fadeev, has brought a decoction containing DMT to Russia. On appeal, his sentence was decreased to three years, and later he was extradited to Brazil. The shaman was probably saved because of a top-level intervention – the president of Brazil, Michel Temer, has discussed his case with Vladimir Putin.

In the same year, the Moscow Oblast Court sentenced a Russian citizen, Arseniy Kocharovsky, to seven years of incarceration in a maximum-security prison. Kocharovsky has brought one bottle with a decoction containing DMT from Peru.

In 2018, Maxim Gert got 11 and a half years in a maximum-security prison for trying to bring a bottle of liana decoction from Peru to Russia. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to two years. As for now, he has been released.

“The final two-year sentence is simply a miracle which would be impossible without public resonance and support of a huge number of good people” – Geert suggests in a conversation with BBC. “The authorities do not see the difference between plants containing DMT, and pure DMT. The word “shaman” for them is associated only with savages galloping around the fire place”.

“The law enforcement agencies pretend to disclose particularly serious crimes related to a large-scale drug trafficking, and report that they arrest thousands of doses of DMT. In fact, they seize a drink that contains an unknown amount of DMT, or maybe even just its leftovers. Ayahuasca happens to have 0 to 1% of DMT, and in some cases it does not contain it at all” – as an expert of the Institute for Human Rights and lawyer of the “New Drug Policy program”, Arseny Levinson, told BBC.

He says that the criminal cases related to DMT trafficking clearly show the injustice of law because, according to law, the weight of the narcotic substance is equal to the total weight of a mixture which contain it.

Previously, it was legal to bring Peruvian decoctions to Russia, but now the authorities have taken control of this area, – retorts the Major General of Police, Alexander Yanevsky.

“I will speak from the perspective of an operative. Hypothetically, there is (in DMT trafficking cases) some kind of malicious inten. There is some organization that manages a trafficking channel. This channel needs to be disguised somehow. How to disguise it? They disguise it under those decoctions an inject the narcotic substance into them” – he told BBC.

After a concoction is on the Russian territory, it is dried out and the narcotic substance is extracted from it with a special chemical reaction. Then it is assorted and distributed among consumers, – Yanevsky described a possible scheme.

“We discussed that some kind of tourist recommendations should be developed regarding the purchase of various substances in South America. People buy something for treatment and then bring it to Russia, but all this is sold there without any restrictions”, – as a lawyer who defended the shaman Eduardo Shianka and Arseniy Kocharovsky, Eduard Usikov, explained.

Thousands of foreigners are now coming to Peru mainly from the West.  Some go there out of curiosity, some seek for a healing of depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, diabetes and other diseases. Many healing practices which are aimed at tourists and centers that work specifically with foreigners have recently appeared in Peru.

The Peruvians themselves seek for an advice of Kuranderos shamans and use plants in medicinal purposes. The ceremonies with the use of hallucinogens interest them much less than visitors, – the anthropologist, Marina Orlova, says.

She did not see any disclaimers in Peru that substances which are freely sold there may be prohibited in other countries. “I went to Peru, and there was not even regular tea in the hotel, there was only tea made of coca leaves. That means that even if you want some regular tea, it just does not exist. The candies made of coca leaves are sold freely at the airport”, – she says.

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