The problem blends with the transit of migrants who cross the region in search of the American drea...
BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Just US$2 can change someone’s life forever.
That’s the cost of a vile of phosphoric, nitric or sulfuric acid, which are being used as weapons against women in Colombia at an alarming rate.
There have been 22 acid attacks on women this year after 42 were committed in 2011 and about 125 from 2004 to 2010, according to the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML).
Two years ago, when leaving a party, Carmen Espitia became a victim when two suspects threw acid on her face after she refused to hand over her belongings.
“The only thing I felt was the heat – I knew they had thrown something at me, but I never thought they would ruin my life just to steal a purse and cellphone,” said Espitia, who’s 32 and needed four surgeries to treat her wounds. “For the people who commit these attacks, it isn’t as much about stealing as it is about their hatred toward women.”
The damage left by acid, which can be purchased by anyone nationwide, is often permanent, said Ricardo Pérez, a volunteer surgeon at the Quemado Foundation, an organization that tends to the victims of these types of attacks.
“I have seen cases of women with optic nerve damage who lose sight in one eye, and the burns can be up to the third degree, which means serious complications for recovery since blood vessels are damaged,” he said. “Nerves and skin never go back to being the same. Basically, it is very unlikely a victim of an acid attack will ever again have normal features. Nevertheless, they have to submit to several operations to at least repair as much of the affected skin as possible.”
Another problem is the high cost of treatment for victims, surgeon Jaime Najar said.
“These are victims who have to pay high medical costs, and not every health center in Colombia can fix these kinds of wounds as covered under medical plans,” he said. “In other words, in addition to suffering psychologically, the victims also have to live with physical wounds and with the anxiety of having to pay expensive medical bills.”
On average, a six-month treatment plan at the Quemado Foundation, which includes surgery, special fabric garments, medicine to treat scars, social assistance and psychological therapy, costs about US$1,062. However, this figure doesn’t include reconstructive therapy, which many patients have to go through to regain a close-to-normal appearance, according to Rosa Pinedo, the foundation’s administrative deputy director.
María Cuervo, 41, was attacked in 2004, but the cost of the surgeries prevented her from having all of the operations she needed.
“The medical bills are too high,” said Cuervo, who now volunteers with the Quemado Foundation. “I have gone through four surgeries to protect my skin, but I would need a lot more money to go through additional surgeries. I just don’t have the money. I have no college education and no one will give me a job because of my appearance. I don’t have many options left.”
Those found guilty of an acid attack are generally sentenced to between six months and two years in prison.
Sandra Camargo, from Valledupar in the department of Cesar, has had 25 surgeries after her ex-husband threw acid on her seven years ago.
Camargo advocates more severe sentences for attackers and for the government to take better care of victims.
“Sometimes, it is impossible for us to recover,” she said.
Congresswoman Gloria Stella Díaz introduced a bill in Congress this past March to increase the sentencing from eight to 20 years for those convicted of an acid attack.
“The idea is to have the bill also help control the sale of acids and control the retail sale of these substances, because merchants cannot be selling acids without any type of control,” she said when introducing the bill.
The law would allow for officials to revoke the business license of any company that sells acid illegally and for those involved in the violation to be tried as accomplices if the acid they sold was used in an attack.
The bill went through a first round of debate in the Senate and is headed to the House of Representatives.
“This could take a few months,” Díaz said. “However, we are sure that by the end of 2012 the bill could become law and be signed by the president.”