Faces Of A Scarred Society?

By bogotapost April 25, 2014
Acid attacks in Colombia are becoming more popular

Easy access to chemicals is one of the reasons for Colombia’s high rate of acid attacks. Photo: CGP Grey, Creative Commons 2.0

Acid attacks have made the news in recent weeks- we ask what factors have made Colombia one of the worst countries for this type of violence.

The presidential candidate for the Conservative Party, Marta Lucía Ramírez, recently declared: “We are in a society sick with hatred.”

The politician made the remarkable observation in relation to an issue that has gained a lot of attention in Colombia in the last month: acid attacks.

Acid attacks, and more broadly attacks which inflict burns using chemical agents, are a form of extreme violence. Survivors are left with horrific physical and psychological scarring and are often condemned to lifelong social stigma. A common practice for decades in countries such as Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, acid attacks have only recently become a frequent occurrence in Colombia. It is now among the countries with the highest reported incidence of attacks with acid and chemical agents in the world.

Attacks are most often portrayed in the media as an issue of violence against women, but this is not universally true – and not the case here in Colombia.

“Our research shows the majority of victims globally are women and girls,” says Jaf Shah, Executive Director of British charity Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI). “As it impacts on women disproportionately it is a form of gender-based violence. This is particularly true in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. However, in Cambodia and Uganda there is almost an equal balance of attacks against men and women.”

This almost equal balance of male and female victims is also true for Colombia. According to the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, from 2004-2013 there were a reported 926 victims of attacks with acid or chemical agents in Colombia, of which 455 were male – equivalent to over 49% of victims.

Statistics may not be comprehensive, however, as many cases go unreported. Shah says that survivors not only live in fear of reprisals for reporting attacks, but they also know their chances of achieving a prosecution are tiny. In any case, it is clear that in the Colombian context, violence against women is only part of the picture.

In examining the issue, it is instructive to look for common factors among countries where acid violence is prevalent. Shah told The Bogotá Post: “Attacks are most common in societies with unequal relations between men and women, where the rule of law is weak and the policing and judicial systems ineffective and/or corrupt. Easy availability of acid…contributes to incidents of acid violence in a number of countries.”

Colombia would seem to tick all of these boxes, to varying degrees. Acid is cheap and readily available in this country-with virtually no restrictions on their sale, the acids used in attacks can be bought for as little as the equivalent of USD$2.00. In terms of gender equality, the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Report ranked Colombia 35th of 136 countries. Regarding policing and judicial effectiveness, in its 2014 Rule of Law Index the World Justice Project ranked Colombia 61st out of 99 countries.

While Colombia matches the common profile of countries with acid violence, so too do its regional neighbours in Latin America. Yet Colombia is the only country in the Western Hemisphere to have significant numbers of attacks. Therefore the question is raised: is there perhaps an even larger issue at play behind the acid attacks in Colombia? The answer may lie in the country’s long history of brutal conflict.

As most readers will be aware, in the second half of the 20th century, Colombia saw the emergence of a host of violent actors that have perpetuated an internal conflict, including leftist guerrilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, powerful drug cartels and right-wing paramilitary groups. According to the study ‘¡Basta ya!’ conducted by the Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica (CNMH), between 1958-2012 the Colombian conflict caused the death of 218,094 people – 81% of whom were civilians. There were 27,023 victims of kidnapping.

The effect of this level of ongoing conflict on society has been studied by several academics. In his book Violence in Colombia 1990-2000, the director of CNMH Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez observes that “the lives of most Colombians born after the Second World War…have been spent under the sign of violence”, a violence that “has progressively invaded all spheres of public and private life.”

Professor Emeritus of Sociology Peter Waldmann proposes that in Colombia there exists a “culture of violence”, where extreme forms of violence are “an everyday occurrence”. Such frequency and intensity of violence, he claims, is “only possible because of a widespread tacit tolerance and acceptance of the use of physical force to solve private and social problems.” An insufficiency of the Colombian state to guarantee public security, he writes, further compounds the problem.

Might the prevalence of acid attacks in Colombia – an extreme form of violence – be a product of a pervasive “culture of violence”? Would such a notion explain why politician Marta Lucía Ramírez bemoaned a “society sick with hatred”?

Regardless of the cause, preventing acid violence and supporting its victims will require a firm commitment from the government. Shah suggests a multi-faceted approach: governments should increase awareness of acid violence, challenge accepted discriminatory practices and restrict the sale of acids, while ensuring adequate medical support for victims and punishing perpetrators appropriately.

Moves are currently afoot in Colombia to raise jail terms for offenders and restrict acid sales. Nonetheless, in this country, where the horrific crimes of today are barely remembered tomorrow, the risk is that acid violence, largely ignored until now by lawmakers, will become yet another drop in an ocean of violence that ebbs and flows just beneath the collective consciousness.

By Cameron Curtis