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Rash of acid attacks stir calls for change in Colombia


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acid sriA rash of acid attacks in recent weeks have horrified Colombians, provoking calls for special laws to deter a particularly fearsome form of aggression in an already violent society.

For reasons as various as a lovers' quarrel or an argument among neighbors, five people have been attacked in the past two weeks with corrosive chemicals causing serious burns.

In the latest case, which occurred Wednesday in the northwestern city of Medellin, the victim, a 22-year-old youth, died.

The phenomenon is not new by any means. Since 2004, nearly a thousand attacks involving acid have been reported in Colombia, according to statistics kept by medical examiners.

But a media frenzy erupted after an attack at the end of March on Natalia Ponce, a 33-year-old woman from a well-off Bogota family.

"Regrettably the issue only became a subject of discussion once it impacted a family with resources and contacts. Before it was an anonymous crime affecting poor people," said Gloria Stella Diaz, a lawmaker who has fought for years against this sad Colombian reality.

A member of the Christian MIRA party, Diaz said acid attacks were "the sign of a sick society, one in which people are used to violence."

The country has been plagued for half a century by an armed conflict marked by a high degree of cruelty, involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, criminal gangs and military forces.

President Juan Manuel Santos has called the acid attacks "truly atrocious and deplorable," and Colombian authorities have offered rewards of about $40,000 for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators.

Meanwhile, black billboards have gone up along the streets of the capital with the inscription" "We are all Natalia."

- 'Crime against humanity' -

"To attack someone with acid is worse than killing, kidnapping, torturing or raping them. The victims lose their identity," said Abelardo de la Espriella, Natalia's lawyer.

"What is needed is to create a separate category of crime, with severe penalties and with no possibility of reduced sentences," he said. "If the full weight of the law is applied, the situation would change."

This week, Diaz, supported by other political forces, introduced a bill that would toughen the punishment for acid attacks, proposing 12 to 45 years in prison.

Former Senate president Roy Barreras, a physician by profession, has proposed classifying this type of attack as a "crime against humanity."

Voices also have been raised against impunity in these cases, another Colombian weakness.

Of the 926 acid attacks reported over the past 10 years, only three have resulted in prison sentences.

The attorney general's office has said it will conduct a case-by-case review, but at the same time it has warned that is not enough.

"Hardening the punishment is not enough to curb acid attacks," Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez Mendez said in an interview this week with the newspaper El Tiempo, adding that these kind of attacks "exceed the criminal norm" and border on "barbarity."

Another approach involves regulating the sale of chemical products, requiring those who sell them to be on a national registry, "like for arms sales," said Diaz, who believes authorities have not done enough to protect the victims.

The lawmaker said hospitals also should be required to report cases of acid attacks, because the victims often will not for fear of reprisal.

Last year, a bill was passed calling for the victims to receive care, including plastic surgery, paid for by the state. But so far it has not been signed into law.

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