“Experience shows that what’s reported does not correspond to reality,” he said, explaining that victims are sometimes attacked by relatives and fear coming forward.
Noting an increase in acid attacks, Montealegre said he is creating a new team of prosecutors and crime-scene experts to investigate the crimes. The team would also determine whether authorities have inadvertently downgraded the gravity of reported acid attacks, instead of cataloguing some of them as attempted homicides.
The perpetrators often receive no jail time because the attacks are treated as minor assaults, said Sen. Carlos Baena.
“The punishment is very light and doesn’t take into account the very dramatic pain that the victim has to go through,” said Baena, who is sponsoring a bill to impose at least a 20-year prison term on convicted attackers.
He and the city councilwoman, Rubio, are also proposing regulations to require buyers of acids to register their purchase.
Such reforms might have an impact. The number of attacks in Bangladesh fell from about 500 a year a decade ago to about 100 a year after that country imposed tougher sentencing guidelines and began to register acid sales, said Jaf Shah, the executive director of London-based Acid Survivors Trust International.
Health care providers describe a heinous crime that can literally wipe away a victim’s face.
Linda Guerrero, director of the Foundation for the Burned, which provides plastic surgery, physical therapy and psychological assistance to victims, said the chemicals in the acids corrode the proteins in facial skin and sear through delicate tissue.
“It’s the worst thing that can happen to your skin,” she said.
And then there is the psychological damage to the victim, of having to live with a gruesomely disfigured face she does not recognize, a face that can repel even family members. The shock seems to be magnified in a society like Colombia that so venerates beauty.
“Our society is not prepared for people with deformities and less so people with facial deformities,” said Alan Gonzales, a plastic surgeon has operated on several acid attack victims. “They are discriminated by society, perhaps not in a premeditated way, but spontaneously because we do not have a culture that is equipped to deal with tragedies like these.”
‘Some just stare at me’
The acid thrown at Viviana Hernandez, 29, not only burned her face and chest but also damaged a cornea and ate through her eyelids. “It’s devastating economically and psychologically,” she said of the 2007 attack by her former partner. “But I think more psychologically than physically. This is something you never, ever leave behind.”
Hernandez said she made it with the help of her three children, her siblings and mother. She now works as an accountant.
Consuelo Cordoba, though, says she can only dream of a job and family.
She has neither, she said, and instead begs in Bogota’s sprawling wholesale food market. An evangelical church gives her the $120 she needs for her monthly rent. People who have read about her in local newspapers provide her with meals.
Though she has had about 40 operations since being attacked a decade ago, she must still wear a mask. She even has trouble eating, because of the damage done to her teeth.
“There are some who just stare at me, shocked, and others who make fun,” she said. “I don’t pay attention to them. Sometimes it hurts, but you have to continue living.”
She had once been a vivacious woman, decked out in jewelry and wearing colorful, velvety dresses, as evidenced by the old pictures she still has.
“I was pretty, I had beautiful hair, I had a nice smile and perfect teeth,” she said. “And then this happened to me and it was all taken away.”