March 08, 2012 12:00:00 AM
Colombian Gina Potes has become a familiar patient to plastic surgeons since an unknown attacker threw acid in her face. But she is hoping her upcoming 24th operation will be her last.
"The marks left by an acid attack are not only physical, they also are psychological," said Potes, 35, who still does not know why she was singled out for the attack 15 years ago in the doorway of her Bogota home.
Similar attacks against women have been on an upswing recently in Colombia, compelling lawmakers to consider tougher penalties.
The Bogota City Council is planning to use International Women's Day on Thursday to mark a day of solidarity with the acid victims.
Other women are being encouraged to donate their hair at city hall to make wigs for victims who have become bald from the chemical burns.
Potes's first reaction after the attack was to hide away. Only later was she able to overcome her fears to venture out in search of a job.
"But nobody would hire me after seeing me like that," she said.
The assailants in acid attacks can get as much as four years in prison, which Potes says is far too weak for a sentence.
Plastic surgeon Linda Guerrero, who heads the Burn Foundation of Bogota, treated her first acid attack victim 15 years ago. Now she is treating 31 patients.
The Institute of Legal Medicine of Bogota identified 55 known cases of women attacked with acid in 2010 and 42 in 2011, according to preliminary figures.
"It's the product of a macho culture like the one in Colombia that results in the majority of the victims being young women, poorly educated, attacked over emotional disagreements," Guerrero told AFP.
The attacks result mostly from disputes among domestic partners or romantic rivals, and many of the victims are not hospitalized immediately, she said.
A "jealous" neighbor led to Nubia Espita, a 33-year-old Venezuelan, being permanently disfigured, she told AFP.
During the Christmas holiday five years ago, unidentified assailants apparently linked to the neighbor threw acid in her face. Fifteen surgeries still have not corrected all the damage. The attackers were never prosecuted.
Most of the attacks "go unpunished because of the difficulty in finding out who did it," Colombian Congresswoman Gloria Estela Diaz told AFP.
After an "alarming" increase in acid attacks, the congresswoman plans to introduce a bill March 16 to toughen sentences to between eight-to-30 years in prison, without the possibility of reduced jail time.
Another legislative response to the attacks is being discussed in the Bogota City Council, where councilwoman Victoria Olga Rubio has proposed a limit on sales of acid. She says the low price of the acid, which can be as little as $2 per bottle, is helping such attacks.
"We will restrict the sale of phosphoric acid, sulfuric and nitric acids that are most commonly used for these attacks, although some use gasoline," she told AFP.
Viviana Hernandez is one example of what happens when a jealous husband loses control. After she asked for a separation, the father of her three children poured acid on her face to prevent her from being with "anyone else."
She still is angry that her husband has not been prosecuted.
"The authorities demanded that I prove that he was the aggressor," Hernandez, 28, told AFP.
She was forced to flee to another city to protect herself. "We carry this tragedy with us every day," she said, adding she needed five million pesos (about $3,000) for surgery to recover the sight in her left eye.