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Acid Attacks A Rising Menace For Colombian Women

Maria Cuervo, 41, poses at her home in Bogota March 5 with a photo of herself before a stranger threw acid at her face in 2004. (AFP/Getty Images)

A brutal crime more commonly associated with Pakistan or India is now on the rise in South America: Jealous husbands, spurned lovers and, in a few cases, even perfect strangers are dousing women with sulfuric or nitric acids, literally burning off their faces.

In Colombia, the horrific trend is terrorizing women and alarming officials.

Among those disfigured by such an attack is Consuelo Cordoba, 51, who was assaulted a decade ago by her former partner and lives a life of endless physical and psychological pain.

"I had perfect teeth, I was very pretty," Cordoba says. "But now, I'm destroyed."

A Never-Ending Nightmare

I've thought about committing suicide, yes sir, I've thought about taking my life three times. I say to myself, why live? With a life like the one I have, what for?
Consuelo Cordoba, acid attack victim

On a recent day, she wears a hat pulled down low and the skin-tight elastic mask she needs to both cover her gruesome injuries and prevent infection. She goes to the huge wholesale market in Bogota's working-class south to beg for money.

She asks for change, passing from stall to stall in the bustling market.

Cordoba is a fixture at the market. The vendors know her, are well aware of her years-long ordeal, and many of them help.

"What's happening with the acid attacks is terrible, terrible," says one of the vendors, Rita Velandia, 45, who gives Cordoba money. "We are terrified of it. Being attacked with acid is incredibly terrible."

Like other victims of acid attacks, Cordoba can't get a job — prospective employers simply don't want to hire someone whose face has been seared off.

"I come here to earn a living, to meet my obligations," Cordoba says. "People here know me and they know my situation."

Her situation is nothing short of a nightmare. The attack against her, for reasons she's still unclear about, blinded her in one eye, burned off an ear and her nose, shredded her lower face, and severely damaged her teeth. She says she has undergone 40 operations and has to breathe through a special tube that sticks out of her nose.

Cordoba says it's sometimes too much for her.

"I've thought about committing suicide, yes sir, I've thought about taking my life three times," she says. "I say to myself, why live? With a life like the one I have, what for?"

General Rise In Violence Against Women

In recent years, acid attacks have received much attention in a variety of Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Cambodia. There have also been cases of men throwing acid on women in the United States, Spain and London, where the 2008 assault on model Katie Piper stunned Britons.

But such attacks remain rare in the West. In recent years, though, attacks that were once sporadic in Colombia are becoming increasingly common.

The statistics are sketchy, but Olga Rubio, a Bogota councilwoman who has studied the issue, says as many as 100 people, mostly women, have been attacked this year. She said in all of 2011 there were 150 attacks.

Rubio acknowledges that women have made great strides in Colombia. There are female ministers in government; the highest echelons of the business world include many women; and more women than men are in universities.

But some men also treat women like objects, Rubio says, and there is still a retrograde form of discrimination against women that can evolve into violence.

"We have a machista society; we have a society that doesn't permit equality, where there is not a mental openness to work [with women] under equal conditions," she says.

Rubio and others who have tracked the problem say it's not clear why the attacks are increasing. But some women's-rights advocates say there has been a general rise in violence against women, from vicious beatings by husbands that become public to the use of rape by irregular armed groups in Colombia's long and shadowy conflict.

There have even been some attacks by strangers. In 2004, Maria Cuervo was walking down the street when a complete stranger shouted, "This is so you don't think you're so pretty," and doused her with an acid that burned through her face.

Other women have spoken about how their spurned partners, furious that they were breaking off a relationship, retaliated with acid. Erica Vanessa Vargas, 20, says that's why her former boyfriend attacked her after she broke up with him.

"He then said, 'If you're not mine, then no one will have you,'" she recalls.

Fighting For Harsher Penalties

What is clear is that most of the attacks are occurring in Bogota, a city of 8 million, and that the victims are generally from the working or lower classes. There is also a spike in attacks against men, with muggers using acid to stun a victim before robbing him.

The problem of attacks against women, though, has gotten so severe that Rubio, the councilwoman, and a senator from her party, Carlos Baena, are proposing legislation that would require acid sales to be registered. They also want to dramatically increase criminal penalties because acid attacks often lead to little or no jail time.

"The punishment is very light and doesn't take into account the very dramatic pain that the victim has to go through," says Baena.

Colombia's attorney general, Eduardo Montealegre, tells NPR he is putting together a special team of prosecutors and evidence-collection experts to investigate the crimes and to determine whether authorities have failed to catalog acid attacks as attempted homicides in cases where the assaults could have caused a victim's death.

His office, which is now investigating 36 attacks against women, believes that the number of cases reported to authorities does not accurately reflect the true number of assaults.

Montealegre says that's because sometimes the attacker is a relative of the victim. And the victim then fears what might happen to her should she file a report.

Focused Simply On Surviving

In Cordoba's case, she went to authorities, and the man who attacked her served a short jail stint.

But that was years ago and she's now simply focused on surviving. She has no family and the state provides little in the way of support. Cordoba instead relies on the kindness of strangers.

Out on the street on a recent day, she runs errands – trying to find the cheapest facial creams and other drugs she has to use.

It's a sunny day, but she's dressed in a heavy jacket, a sweater and, of course, her mask. She also carries a big umbrella.

"I'm dressed this way because I can't stand the sun, so I have to carry the umbrella and wear the mask so the solar rays do not penetrate the burns on my face," she says. "That hurts a lot."

Going out also means having to put up with strangers, she says. Some just stare, fixated on her appearance. Some ridicule her.

"It's hard but I don't pay attention to them," she says. "Sometimes it hurts but I have to go on with life."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Colombia, there's been a startling number of acid attacks against women. Sometimes the attacker is a spurned lover or jealous husband, sometimes a stranger. Officials say it's likely that more of these attacks have happened than have been reported.

NPR's Juan Forero has this report from Bogota. Again, some details are hard to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: A brass band provides a festive touch outside this huge wholesale market in Bogota's working class south. Inside, it's a flurry of activity as sellers unload the fruits and vegetables that supply a metropolis. And in the midst of all of all this is Consuelo Cordoba. She wears a hat down low and a skin-tight mask, to cover the injuries on her face.

CONSUELO CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She's part of the landscape here, too, but she comes to beg. Like other victims of acid attacks, she can't get a job - prospective employers simply don't want to hire someone whose face has been seared off.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I come here to earn a living, to meet my obligations, Cordoba says, people here know my situation.

Her situation is nothing short of horrific. A decade ago, for reasons she's still not clear about, her partner tossed acid on her face. It blinded her in one eye, burned off an ear and her nose, shredded her lower face, and severely damaged her teeth. She's undergone one operation after another and has to breathe through a special tube that sticks out of her nose. Cordoba says it's sometimes too much for her.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I've thought about committing suicide three times, she says. I say to myself, why live? What for?

Acid attacks have gotten a lot of attention in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. But they've been more rare in the West. In Colombia, attacks that were once sporadic are now becoming increasingly common. Olga Rubio, a Bogota councilwoman, says as many as 100 people - most of them women - have been attacked just this year.

OLGA RUBIO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: We have a machista society, a society that doesn't permit equality in the workplace, Rubio says. She adds that many men also treat women as objects. She and a senator from her party, Carlos Baena, are proposing legislation that would require acid sales to be registered. They also want to dramatically increase criminal penalties because acid attacks often lead to little or no jail time.

Colombia's attorney general, Eduardo Montealegre, told NPR he's putting together a special team of prosecutors and evidence-collection experts to investigate the crimes.

EDUARDO MONTEALEGRE: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Montealegre says the crimes that are reported do not accurately represent the true number of cases. He says that's because sometimes the attacker is a relative of the victim. And the victim then fears what might happen to her should she file a report. In Consuelo Cordoba's case, she went to authorities and the man who attacked her served a short jail stint. But that was years ago and she's now simply focused on surviving.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Out on the street on a recent day, she runs errands. It's a sunny day, but she's dressed with a heavy jacket, a sweater, her mask, of course. Going out also means having to put up with strangers.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Some just stare, she says. Others make fun. She says it's hard, but she just tries to get on with her life.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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