Viviana Hernandez sells beauty products door to door in Neiva, a Colombian city where daytime temperatures regularly soar to 90 degrees.It’s been hard for this 30-year-old mother of three to keep a permanent job ever since her face was severely burnt and disfigured in an acid attack, which blinded her in the left eye.
“For the first two years [after the attack] I didn’t want to speak to anyone or even leave my home,” Hernandez said over the phone. “But I have three children to fight for. And as time passed I also realized there were many women who this had also happened to.”
Colombia has taken great steps in reducing crime and violence over the past 10 years. The country’s homicide rate has halved since 2002, and kidnappings have decreased significantly, from 3,500 per year at the turn of the century to less than 300 in 2013, according to National Police figures.
But acid attacks continue to be a problem in the South American country, with more than 900 cases like Hernandez’s occurring over the past 10 years, according to Colombia’s Institute for Legal Medicine. Many of the victims are women who were attacked by vengeful former partners.
According to Hernandez, who now leads an advocacy group for victims of attacks, getting officials to do something about these crimes has been a slow process: Only four people who committed acid attacks are known to have served jail time over the past 10 years, she told us in a phone interview.
But Hernandez says that all it took for politicians to once again get interested in this situation was for a woman from a wealthy neighborhood to be attacked.
Since Natalia Ponce de Leon, a businesswoman, was doused with acid outside her home in Bogota’s exclusive Hacienda Santa Barbara neighborhood on March 27, dozens of media outlets in Colombia have begun to talk about acid attacks.
President Juan Manuel Santos offered an unprecedented $37,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators. And he promised “rigorous justice” over Twitter.
Less famous politicians have also reacted to the media blitz that began in late march.
Last week, congressmen met with victims and offered to change legislation to make committing an acid attack punishable by up to 40 years in prison, twice the maximum sentence that these attacks currently convey.
Politicians have also talked about making an acid attack equivalent to an act of torture, or an act of attempted homicide as some victims have died after attacks. Currently acid attacks are only categorized as “personal lesions” under Colombian law, and have a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.
These proposals sound good to Hernandez, who was attacked in 2007, while her kids were still infants. A young woman, who allegedly took orders from Hernandez’s ex-partner, threw acid on her face and shoulders as she waited for a bus in Bogota.
But Hernandez was also quick to point out that when she was attacked, the government’s response was very different.
“The Attorney General’s office gave me a notice to bring my ex partner to court and told me to personally deliver it to him,” Hernandez said. “And they told me to gather proof of the crime myself.”
On April 4, Colombian media was abuzz with news that the man who doused acid on Natalia Ponce de Leon had been captured by police.
Colombia’s Defense Minister even held a press conference to announce that Ponce de Leon’s aggressor had been captured.
But seven years have passed since Hernandez was attacked and her former partner and his accomplice were never convicted. Hernandez’s says her aggressor died last year from heart complications.
“The problem is that in this country, justice works according to your social class,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez is hoping that the now infamous attack against Ponce de Leon will push authorities to react against these crimes on a regular basis, and across class lines.
Averaging 92 attacks per year since 2004, Colombia has a higher rate of these attacks per capita than Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where dozens of cases are also registered each year.
Hernandez agrees with tougher penalties. But she says that officials also need to implement existing laws, and punish the perpetrators, in order for this crime to stop.
“We need detectives, police and judges to work together,” Hernandez said. “What you need is to severely punish people for these crimes, and make an example of some aggressors.”
Victims of these face-burning acid attacks in Colombia are also asking for support with medical treatment.
A law drafted by Colombia’s congress in 2013 ensures free medical treatment for victims, including reconstructive surgeries that would be paid for by the government.
But the rules on how to access treatment have not yet been devised by politicians, which means that there are dozens of victims who are still denied treatment by insurance companies.
“As of now, those [laws] are like dead letters,” said Hernandez, who has had two surgeries since she was attacked.
Hernandez says she’s been treated free-of-charge by a plastic surgeon in Bogota who has helped out several victims. But she still has to cover travel costs, as well as the costs of staying at the private hospital where her surgeries have taken place.
Hernandez is still missing six to eight surgeries that would help to reconstruct her left eye, including a cornea transplant, and an operation to re-build her left eyelid.
She feels like she’s overcome the emotional scars of the attacks, but argues that many victims also need the government to provide psychological support.
“What we are interested in is that there is justice for everyone, irrespective of their social class, or their political affiliation,” she said.
“We want justice to be applied equally in all cases.”