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BOGOTA, Colombia — One Thursday afternoon, Natalia Ponce de León, 34, was visiting her mother in the upscale neighborhood of Santa Barbára. Like many apartment buildings in the area, her mother’s brick condominium had a surveillance system, gated entrance and a security guard running the reception. Shortly after 5 p.m., Ponce de León received a call from the guard announcing she had a visitor. When she went downstairs to check, a man wearing a hood appeared and splashed her in the face with a hot liquid.
“At first I thought it was water,” she says. “But then he threw it again, and that’s when it started to burn. It didn’t hurt immediately, because my nerves had gone numb. I only started to scream when I realized I couldn’t see anything.”
Ponce de León was attacked with sulfuric acid, which is commonly found in household drain cleaners. Within seconds, the chemical disintegrated her clothing, seeped into her pores and began melting off the top layers of her skin.
A little over a year has passed since the March 27 attack virtually erased her facial features and burned 24 percent of her body. Even though she hasn’t shown her wounds in public, her case has sparked a media frenzy and national outcry. The hashtag #FuerzaNataliaPoncedeLeón (“Strength for Natalia Ponce de León”) has been tweeted hundreds of thousands of times. Thousands have participated in marches in Bogotá demanding justice for victims like her.
“My experience made a hole that had been covered for years burst wide open,” she says. “Nothing could have ever prepared me for everything that has happened.”
‘Women tend to get splashed in their face and neck. There is a clear mission [by the attackers] to destroy their identity.’
Martha Lucía Sánchez Segura
director, Bogotá Women’s Secretariat
Approximately 1,500 acid attacks are recorded globally each year, according to Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), a nonprofit group in London. Most victims live in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, but the crime is quickly becoming more common in Colombia.
More than 100 cases were reported last year in the South American country and nearly 1,000 in the past decade. Per capita, the country has one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world, says Jaf Shah, ASTI’s executive director.
But 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.”
Ponce de León’s assailant was a man she knew briefly nearly a decade earlier. According to authorities, Jonathan Vega, 34, purchased the chemical six months before the attack and stalked her for months. He was arrested after surveillance video from her mother’s building was released to the press and President Juan Manuel Santos issued a 75 million peso reward (roughly $40,000) for information on his whereabouts.
The quick response and attention Ponce de León’s case received have made her the exception. The government doesn’t typically offer high rewards in acid-attack cases, and arrests are rare. According to Segura, fewer than a dozen people have been charged with the crime in 20 years. Those who are convicted receive, at most, five or six years in prison, she says.
“Natalia has the top lawyer in the country representing her and comes from an upscale family,” Segura says. “That is not the case with most of these women. They usually don’t have anyone representing them or fighting for them. Impunity is still very high in this country, and the people who commit these cowardly crimes get away with it.”
‘When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself. This didn’t only damage my face – it destroyed my whole life.’
acid attack survivor
Esperanza Rangel, 42, has a three-ring binder in her living room in which she has filed every complaint, police report and medical bill that she says proves she was the victim of domestic violence. The first piece of evidence dates to 2009, when her ex-husband beat her so badly that she had to be hospitalized.
“After putting up with his verbal and physical abuse for over a decade, I grabbed our son and left him two years ago,” she says. “Last December, he came to my house making threats and said I would live to regret it if we didn’t get back together.”
The next afternoon, a man doused her face with acid when she was on her way to church. The attack left pink wounds on her face and chest and caused her long blond hair to fall out.
“When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself,” she says, fighting back tears. “This didn’t only damage my face — it destroyed my whole life.”
The attack, she says, cost her the job she held for a dozen years selling cars at a local dealership. She is now on permanent disability, receiving a stipend that is one-third of what she once made. By the end of the month, she says, she will be forced to vacate the apartment she shares with her 9-year-old son, because she can no longer afford the rent.
She has presented her binder to the police, but no one has been arrested in her case. “It’s difficult to see the life I’ve worked for just fall apart and know that the person responsible for this will probably get away with it,” Rangel says. “My faith and my son are what keep me going. They are what keep me alive.”
Rangel’s condition requires frequent trips to the doctor as well as creams and other products for her recovery. Even though her medical treatment is supposed to be paid for by the state, she says her claims are often denied or ignored because they are considered cosmetic.
“I’ve told my EPS [health insurance provider] that things like compacts and sunscreen are an important part of my treatment,” she says. “I’m entitled to this support by law.”
‘There are still a lot of things that need to be done, but this law at least provides a path for treatment.’
acid attack survivor
On July 2, 2013, Colombia’s Congress passed Law 1639, “strengthening the measures that protect the integrity of victims of crimes with acid.” It brought three major breakthroughs: It restricted the sale of acid products, increased prison sentences for assailants and required the state to provide free medical care for victims.
One of the people who pushed for the law was Gina Potes, 39, the country’s first reported acid attack victim. She has since become a spokeswoman for the cause through her nonprofit organization, Rebuilding Faces.
“When this happened to me, there was no support system in place,” she says. “My burns were very severe, and no one knew what to do.”
Since her 1996 attack, she has had more than 25 surgeries. Many were performed for free by doctors who were sympathetic to her case or with the help of local foundations and government agencies, such as the Bogotá’s Women’s Secretariat.
“Most victims don’t have the means to pay for their recovery. This isn’t about being pretty. It’s about being healthy,” Potes says. “There are still a lot of things that need to be done, but this law at least provides a path for treatment.”
The law also requires vendors to register people who buy acid products with INVIMA, the country’s food and drug administration. An additional decree approved 18 months later specifies seven chemical products for which consumers may buy only up to 5 liters (1.3 gallons) at a time. The law increased prison sentences to up to 16 years if the attack causes any sort of deformity in the victim, especially to the face.
Olga Victoria Rubio, a Bogotá city councilwoman, praises the law but says more work needs to be done. “This law brought advances in terms of prison sentences, but we still need to re-evaluate how we categorize these crimes. At this point, acid attacks are still classified by police as personal-injury assaults,” she says. “The consequences they have on victims’ lives, especially women, show they surpass that classification.”
‘I used to live in this bubble, but this experience has opened my eyes and taken me down a completely different path.’
Natalia Ponce de León
acid attack survivor
Ponce de León has used the attention her case has generated to push for improved medical treatment and justice for acid-attack victims in Colombia. She is in the process of setting up a foundation, through which she hopes to help others, like Rangel, who have been affected by these crimes.
“I’ve had to become a lawyer, a doctor, a therapist. I’ve learned a lot,” says Ponce de León as she sits in the cafeteria of the Simón Bolívar Hospital after an appointment with her plastic surgeon. “I used to live in this bubble, but this experience has opened my eyes and taken me down a completely different path.”
Her days now consist of appointments with doctors, visits with friends and research on cases across the country. She has had 11 surgeries, including skin grafts and scrapings, and wears a tight Lycra bodysuit to protect the scars on her arms and abdomen.
Her case caught the attention of Physicians for Peace, an international nonprofit that sent specialized doctors to treat her and other burn patients in Colombia with the latest medical advances.
“The skin on my face is now made out of this artificial skin from Holland, and these new masks were given to me this week,” Ponce de León says as she removes the custom-made polycarbonate mask that protects her from the sun, pollutants and gawking people.
Although the deep wounds from the acid are still evident on her nose, cheeks and chin, her eyes and smile still resemble those of the girl leaning against the orange wall whose picture has been immortalized by the press and social media.
Her attacker’s trial is set to resume in late April, when she is scheduled to testify and face him for the first time since the incident.
“I am much stronger than I ever thought I could be,” she says. “There were times when I thought of giving up, when I didn’t want to live anymore. But now I know I have to face these challenges head-on and work hard in order to keep this from happening to anyone else.”
This version of the story corrects the spelling of Martha Lucía Sánchez Segura's name.