A crime normally associated with countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, acid attacks have been on the rise in Colombia. In 2014, more than 100 cases were reported, with nearly 1,000 reported in the past decade. According to executive director of the Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), a nonprofit group in London, per capita Colombia has one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world. It is a crime that has, until recently, had very little threat of repercussions for perpetrators.
In recognition of the severity of the crime, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos has signed a law intended to create tougher sentences for those committing acid attacks. Committers of acid attacks intend to create lifelong pain and disfigurement, yet few have been prosecuted and none have received the jail time appropriate for such a vicious assault. In the past 20 years fewer than a dozen people have been charged with the crime. Just as concerning, those who are convicted have only received, at most, five or six years in prison, with the majority only spending between six months and two years in prison (Al Jazeera, 2015). Prior to the new law, acid attacks fell under the category of physical aggression or personal injury, equating acid attacks with beatings, a category that does not adequately address the violence, pain, and long lasting impacts associated with acid attacks. Under the new law, those who "use any type of chemical agent" to attack someone will receive between 12 and 20 years of jail time, and the sentence can increase to up to 50 years in prison for those who permanently disfigure their victim, as the majority of acid attacks do (BBC News, 2015). This is a major victory for survivors of acid attacks, who until recently, found little hope in Colombia’s criminal and justice system.
Natalia Ponce de Leon has become the national symbol in the fight against perpetrators of acid attacks. The new law, named after Ms. Ponce de Leon, came after her acid attack generated national attention and outrage. Ms. Ponce de Leon was attacked by a male neighbor who was angered she would not return his advances. While Ms. Ponce de Leon has been able to afford top lawyers and dedicate her life to the fight against acid attacks, the majority of women attacked in Colombia lack this option (Al Jazeera, 2015). Acid attacks primarily target middle and low class individuals in the city of Bogota. Due to the physical severity of the attack, the majority of survivors must endure numerous surgeries and medical expenses, a cost that takes its toll on already lower income individuals, as the state offers little long term support. Additionally, many have been unable to find work due to their condition, furthering hindering their economic situations.
While the new law signed by President Santos is a significant accomplishment for survivors of acid attacks, more needs to be done to end the use of acid as a weapon in Colombia. The majority of acid attacks are against women. Furthermore, the rise in acid attacks correlates to a wider trend in the rise of violence against women in the country. Most women are attacked by a spouse, former partner, relative, or acquaintance. Due to the personal relationship many women have had with their attackers, some choose not to report the assault out of fear of further retaliation. It is hoped that the threat of harsher punishments will deter people from committing such heinous attacks, but Colombia will also need to address the rise in violence against women in order to effectively stop acid attacks in the country.
“Colombia’s President Santos Enacts Tougher Law on Acid Attacks.” BBC News. Jan 19, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35349222
Charner, Flora. “Survivors of Acid Attacks in Colombia Fight for Justice.” Al Jazeera. April 11, 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/11/survivors-of-acid-attacks-in-Colombia-fight-for-justice.html