Colombians woke up Monday to the tragic news that yet another woman had been attacked in Bogotá by acid, resulting in severe burns to her face, legs and chest. Luz Adriana Jurado, 43, was admitted to the Simón Bolívar Hospital and became the most recent victim of an acid attack during two weeks in which 3 other women were severely burned.
Sorleny Pulgarín, 23, Natalia Ponce de León, 33, and Ines Aminta Carrillo, 47, remain in intensive care in various hospitals across the city as lawyers and politicians deal with an unprecedented fallout and public outrage over these attacks; and mounting fear that streets in the capital are becoming a dangerous stomping ground for sadists.
Elected representatives, from municipal to state legislatures, are also holding public debates as to determine tough legislation and punishment for a crime which leaves women disfigured and scarred for life.
From information released by the Colombian National Police, the motive behind each case has been different; ranging from the “tormented” neighbor of Ms. Ponce de León, to apparently senseless and random attacks which have resulted in severe burns affecting up to 60 percent of the victims’ bodies.
The recent attacks know neither class nor territorial limits, having occurred in different parts of the city, from an affluent residential community in the north to Engativa and Bosa in the south of the metropolis. One of Colombia’s top criminal defense attorneys, Abelardo de la Espriella, has taken on the cases of both Ms. Ponce de León and Ms. Carrillo.
Acid attacks are commonplace in many parts of the world and Colombia has tragically now joined the ranks of afflicted nations. According to the NGO Feminicidio.net in 2011, Colombia was one of the countries with the highest number of reported acid attacks. In 2011, 42 cases were reported and last year the state’s Forensic Institute, Legal Medical, registered 36 attacks against men and women in Bogotá alone.
These figures are only indicative however of those reported and which could lead security agents to the arrest a perpetrator. It is estimated that many more cases, as in the case of domestic violence, occur behind closed doors and remain unknown due to a victim’s fear of repercussion.
The non-governmental organization Acid Survivors Trust International states that in order to rebuild their lives, acid survivors need to have long-term access to a holistic program of medical support, rehabilitation, and advocacy and most states provide little if any form of adequate support.
These attacks rarely cause death but the immense physical disfigurement has deep psychological and social scarring which remain with the victim for life. Access to legal recourse is impossible in many parts of the world and with the recent attacks in Bogotá, the world’s eyes are now focused on the Colombian legal and political system to see what recourse and reparations are offered to victims, as well as preventative measures to deter future attacks.
In 2013 President Juan Manuel Santos presented law 1639 (ratified last July) aiming to strengthen measures for the protection of victims of acid attacks. However, impunity is still rampant and few advances have been made with issues surrounding the selling and purchasing of dangerous chemicals.
Justice Minister Alfonso Gómez Méndez was emphatic stating to the press that despite the “absence” of having applied the full weight of Law 1639 – in the case of Ms.Ponce de León it should be applied and that the legal system must find mechanisms which permit the immediate arrest of alleged perpetrators.
The scheduled trial of 33-year-old Jonathan Vega, Ms. Ponce de León’s alleged attacker, has left the public stunned at the easy availability of acids which can be converted into a lethal weapon and which, in the case of Mr.Vega, was purchased in a busy and commercial barrio of Bogotá – 7 de Agosto.
Mr. Vega could receive the maximum penalty under the nation’s Criminal Code of 37 years in jail, yet he would receive an instant 50 percent reduction of his sentence as time served as a result of his confession. Mr.Vega’s trial will tackle issues of whether proof of intention to murder is needed, given the gravity of the impacts of the attack and whether the sentence should include consideration of the threat the aggressor supposedly poses to society.
Despite President Juan Manuel Santos’ condemnation of the recent attacks, critics argue that the punishment is still far too lax and does not take into account the drastic physical and emotional pain inflicted on the victim. As news media and social networks barraged a shocked nation, Santos addressed Colombians offering a reward of USD $40,000 for information leading to the arrest of acid attackers. Meanwhile, since her attack on March 27th, Ms. Ponce de Leon has undergone 3 reconstructive surgeries and remains in intensive care.
The NGO Stop Acid Attacks which deals with cases primarily in India, is petitioning for life imprisonment for perpetrators of this sadistic crime. NGOs focusing on the prevalence of acid attacks state that they should be treated as attempted homicide or torture, yet Colombia’s Attorney General, Eduardo Montealegre, is directing the investigation to determine whether this has been the case, in Colombia, in recent years.
As of Monday, a free citizen’s helpline ‘155’ was activated to receive cases of acid attacks or aggression against women, and the Ministry of the Interior has promised that within a week, higher levels of punishment for chemical attacks against women will be passed into law.
Acid attacks are a horrifyingly tangible and vivid reminder of the violence women are subjected to around the world. Although Colombia’s legal system contains specific safeguards and guarantees for victims, the recent attacks in Bogotá have proven that this issue merits even more attention and public awareness.