NEW LAW SEEKS HARSHER PUNISHMENTS FOR ACID ATTACKS IN COLOMBIA
Often associated with Western Asia, acid attacks are becoming widespread in the Americas. According to The Bogota Post, “Colombia has the third highest rate of acid attacks in the world” (http://thebogotapost.com/2015/12/02/tougher-sentences-for-acid-attacks/). The 2014 attack of businesswoman Natalia Ponce de León has pushed acid attacks to the forefront of political attention across Colombia.
In March 2014, Ponce de León was doused with one liter of sulfuric acid while visiting family nearby. The attack was perpetrated by her neighbor, a man who was allegedly incensed at her repeated rejections of his romantic advances. After her high-profile attack, Ponce de León fought to push this neglected form of violence into the spotlight. On November 25 – the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – a new bill named after Ponce de León was passed by the Colombian Senate.
Acid attacks are becoming endemic in Latin America and in Colombia specifically. While both men and women have been victims of acid attacks, the intent behind attacks against women are believed to be for a different purpose.
Martha Lucía Sánchez Segura, who leads the Bogotá Women’s Secretariat, says that the way the attacks are carried out and the intent behind them tend to vary by gender. “Most of the male victims are attacked in the torso. Women tend to get splashed in their face and neck,” she says. “There is a clear mission [by the attackers] to destroy their identity, that if they won’t be with them, they won’t be with anyone” (Al Jazeera 2015).
Although the bill has gained rapid traction, Ponce de León’s attacker has yet to be tried. This is an unfortunate norm for many victims. Until the attack on Ponce de León in 2014, the issue remained outside of the radar of popular politics and news. Perpetrators of acid attacks received minimal sentences if they were tried at all, and victims themselves have reported being asked by police to collect evidence for their own trials.
The proposed law – which still requires the signature of President Santos to go into action – would greatly increase the severity of punishments for perpetrators of acid attacks. The legal status of acid attacks will be moved from personal aggression to more severe categories of torture or attempted murder, greatly expanding the penalties for those found guilty of perpetrating or organizing the attacks. It has been extraordinarily difficult for former victims to gain legal retribution or pay medical bills for subsequent surgical reconstruction and psychological damage following attacks. Fewer than one dozen perpetrators have been convicted of the roughly 1,000 acid attacks reported in Colombia over the past decade. It is hoped that the prominence of Natalia Ponce de León’s case will also bring the pervasiveness of this crime among Colombia’s lower class into the national and international spotlight.