By Simone Bruno and Lizza Torres Salazár
After a decade of acid attacks against Colombian women that have left hundreds disfigured, the country’s government is finally beginning to take action against the trend of horrific assaults.
Natalia Ponce de León, a 38-year-old Bogotá businesswoman, suffered severe burns over 24 percent of her body after an assailant threw acid in her face outside her home on March 27. The government then offered a $40,000 reward for information on the attack. On April 5, suspect Jonathan Vega was taken into custody.
Police in Colombia discuss bringing Jonathan Vega into custody.
Yet only four acid attack cases out of at least 926 reported in the country have been successfully tried over the last ten years. Colombia’s victims have seen a lack of official interest in their cases, and they believed this attitude would continue until someone who caught the government’s attention was attacked. They have now been proven correct.
The case of Ponce de León, a textile magnate, was no different from the other assaults, aside from the fact that it occurred during a legislative campaign season and — as widely noted by local press —she lived in West Santa Bárbara, an exclusive residential neighborhood in Colombia’s capital.
Yet acid attacks in Colombia affect the population in a significant way, and they are still not being given enough attention by the country’s institutions or media.
"Everyone starts to turn away — to laugh at you. You start to not feel like yourself. This generates so much pain, suffering, and depression," Elizabeth Ruales — who was attacked with acid last year by a coworker after several work-related altercations — told VICE News.
According to the Colombian National Institute of Forensic Science, at least 926 people have been victims of this method of chemical attack since 2004. Attackers have used adhesives, oils, caustic soda, ammonia and, most commonly, all kinds of acid.
The reason for the frequent choice of acid is simple — it is inexpensive. The price of nitric and sulfuric acids — the most common — fluctuates between 6,500 and 10,000 pesos per gallon (between $3 and $5.50). Additionally, the attackers do not face many obstacles in obtaining the chemicals. Even after so many reported incidents, there is still no law to regulate their sale.
"When a corrosive substance, such as acid, lands on your skin, you begin to feel an unforgettable burning, as if you were on fire — an unbelievable pain. It is like having a grill on your body," Ruales said. She told VICE News that she has had thoughts of suicide since the attack.
The Colombian ONG, a small collective dedicated to combating the attacks, reported in 2011 that the country had a highest level of reported acid attacks worldwide. The current figures, which VICE News received via the Legal Medicine Institute, show that almost 90 percent of the victims are female and between the ages of 26 and 35. Around 80 percent of the perpetrators are male, and the attackers are typically hired.
Many of the cases begin as neighborhood disagreements, tenant arguments, or workplace disputes. But most attacks are between romantic partners, according to victims’ testimonies.
One of the first nationally reported cases was that of Viviana Hernandez, who was attacked in 2007 with corrosive liquid by a hired assailant — who was allegedly hired by the father of her children — as she was returning home with her four-year-old son.
“If torture is not being made to appear disfigured for the rest of your life, then what is torture?” Hernandez said to VICE News.
“I have had seven years of frustration, rage, hopelessness, and a thousand inconveniences caused by this. The government has every responsibility to find a stable measure to stop the attacks. Unfortunately, it hasn’t,” said Hernandez, who lost her left eye in the attack.
It wasn’t until the recent attack on Ponce de León that alarms were finally raised across the country. As Hernandez pointed out: “The case was a big deal because she is better positioned, economically. The upper class realized that it is also against them. We are outraged that everyone felt assaulted by this case, when there are plenty in the country that are still trying to get the attention of the authorities.”
President Juan Manuel Santos’ government has sought to implement new policies to prevent the attacks, such as regulating the public sale of the chemicals being used, increasing penalties, and following up with medical attention for the victims. Even so, there are still no regulatory laws in place today, and according to the Colombian National Institute of Forensic Science’s figures, attacks are on the rise. There have been 380 reported cases in the regions around the three major cities of Bogotá, Antioquia, and Valle del Cauca, since the beginning of 2014.
Despite the efforts being made to end the attacks and alleviate the physical pain of victims, the most difficult aspect for those attacked is the emotional scarring left by the chemical wounds. In most cases, acid attacks are designed to inflict humiliation more than actual pain.
“The fact that people won’t approach you because they think that you will give them a contagious disease, or just the fact that you look for work and they don’t call you because of your physical appearance, is something that you will never forget,” Hernandez said. “All because of the acid.”