The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Colombian shaman shows no remorse in death of British teen from hallucinogenic brew

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BOGOTA - A Colombian shaman is showing no remorse and taking no responsibility for the death of a British teenager who drank a hallucinogen during a tribal ritual.

Guillermo Mavisoy says it's common to vomit and become ill while consuming yage. But he says he's never seen anyone die during the decades he's been serving the herbal concoction made from the namesake vine and other plants native to the Amazon rainforest.

"When it's time to die, you die," Mavisoy said in rudimentary Spanish in a taped interview Tuesday from his home on a tribal reservation in the southern Colombian jungles. "You can take the safest pill in the world and you can die. It doesn't matter if you have lots of money when the time has come."

Henry Miller's body was found last week dumped near Mavisoy's modest home after he and other foreigners attended a ceremony led by the shaman.

Authorities have yet to determine the cause of death but say the 19-year-old from Bristol, England fell ill during the ritual. Mavisoy says he ordered two family members to rush Miller to the hospital on a motorcycle but when the teen died en route the men panicked and left the body on the side of a dirt road.

The two men and Mavisoy have been questioned in connection with a manslaughter investigation but no charges have been filed.

Yage, also known as ayahuasca, has been venerated for centuries by indigenous tribes in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia as a divinatory tool and miracle cure for all sorts of ailments.

It was popularized in the West in the 1960s in "The Yage Letters," a collection of correspondence and writings by William Burroughs, describing to fellow beat writer Allen Ginsberg his search for mind-altering experiences in the Amazon using the strange brew.

Mavisoy says he doesn't seek out foreigners, but they find their way to his small ranch outside Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo province. The going rate for an all-night session: about $25, according to Filip Goemaere, owner of the Mocoa hostel where Miller and the other backpackers stayed.

"Indigenous tribes say they're not commercializing yage but almost every day tourists go to try it," said Goemaere, who estimates about a third of his guests ask about the psychedelic brew even though he doesn't promote its consumption.

The Associated Press obtained video footage from police taken during the ceremony where Miller fell ill. In the grainy video, Mavisoy is dressed in traditional garb and stomps his feet while blowing on a wind instrument. Tribesman stir yage in a giant pot placed over a fire. Miller is seen addressing a camera but there's no audio.

Next to Mavisoy's home is an open-walled, dirt-floored wooden shack equipped with hammocks where foreigners lounge. A hand-painted mural with images of an Indian, a tiger, an eagle and coca leaves decorate a triangular area on the face of the building.

Mavisoy, who has led healing sessions in other countries, says yage doesn't kill, but rather cleans the spirit and then the body of the person imbibing it.

Peter von Puttkamer, a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker who has traced yage's discovery in the 1940s by a Harvard ethnobotanist, says many foreigners don't have sufficient respect for what tribes in the Amazon consider a sacred healing medicine.

"It can be quite a dark, frightening experience to go on it," Puttkamer told the Associated Press. "It's a mind-altering experience that can possibly alter your perception forever."

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