It was while training as a medical student, hunched over a seven-hour facial reconstruction, that Alan González realized he was destined for a career in plastic surgery. But it wasn’t until later, when he was an established physician and 16-year-old Erika Vanegas walked into his office, that the course of his career began to change. Shortly after Vanegas broke up with a boyfriend, a kid ran up to her and splashed nitric acid in her face. Her ex had paid the kid a dollar to do it. “This girl, she really thought she had lost her life,” says a clean-shaven González at his office in the north of Bogotá. “I didn’t have the will to do anything,” Vanegas, now 25, tells OZY. “I just wanted to die.… I didn’t leave my house for five years.”
“I mean, you’re kidnapped in your own body,” says González, 47.
What goes through the mind of a perpetrator?
Gina Potes, victim of an acid attack
Colombia, a place perceived by some as a once-violent country that’s moving past decades of armed conflict with a fresh peace accord, is seeing other barbaric forms of human rights violations emerge. Multiple victims of these acid attacks see them as a show of power that men in hypermacho societies feel they possess over women. There are approximately 100 attacks each year in Colombia, according to U.K.-based Acid Survivors Trust International, putting the country second behind Pakistan, with at least 160 attacks. But considering that the South American country has only 48 million residents compared with Pakistan’s 199 million, Colombia’s per capita rate of attack is twice that of Pakistan’s.
“What goes through the mind of a perpetrator?” asks Gina Potes, the first victim of an acid attack in Colombia who tried bringing her attacker to justice — though she was ultimately unsuccessful. “To destroy. To disfigure. To erase your identity. They think that if a woman isn’t for him she doesn’t deserve to be for anyone.” Add a veil of impunity for the assailants, and violence that unalterably changes lives gets unleashed. González is trying to change those lives back. “You would think that plastic surgeons are only about the aesthetic, but it’s actually more for me. It’s about taking away limits and letting them live the way they want to live … in their social life, their family life. This is why I got concerned with victims. It’s about preserving their identity,” he says.
A victim’s recovery is an odyssey with mammoth costs. Medical treatment alone can run up to thousands of dollars (Potes has had 30 reconstructive surgeries since her attack). Then there are the noneconomic costs of being a victim of an acid attack: the emotional toll — depression, fear, sadness — the costs of losing a job, or not being able to get a job, of being rejected over and over again. Often, women who suffer attacks in Colombia are from less fortunate circumstances and don’t have ready access to health care. In response, González decided to direct a portion of revenue from his routine surgeries to create a fund for victims. Vanegas, who was operated on five times by González — each paid for in full by the fund — calls him “my angel.”
González bursts into his office, fresh, dapper and seemingly the very opposite of a cold, aloof surgeon. Performing procedures on acid attack victims is about more than technical skill, he says; there is also the need to be sensitive to the emotional and psychological impact of severe trauma. But he has never reconsidered his destiny. “It doesn’t even feel like work,” he says. After graduating from Bogotá’s National University, González practiced in Cuba at the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital in Havana. Some Cubans, crushed by poverty and desperation, would resort to suicide through self-immolation — a method that’s not always successful. González found himself on the other side of those failed attempts, and time in the hospital’s burn unit sealed his fate as a surgeon working to repair people’s flesh.
Elmer Valencia, an old friend, recalls González’s return from Cuba. Despite the long hours González had spent in the Havana burn unit, his boyish face kept people from taking him seriously as a physician. Valencia suggested he grow a beard and mustache to make himself look more mature. “But I don’t have anything to grow,” a 29-year-old González pushed back. “How about glasses?” asked Valencia. It worked — the young doctor finally had an appearance that reflected his experience. Early in his career, González started performing surgery on policemen who’d suffered burn wounds in Colombia’s armed conflict. Then came the acid attack victims.
But, as Jaf Shah, executive director of ASTI, points out, a skilled plastic surgeon can’t do everything. “It’s brilliant that you have philanthropic individuals like González, but you need government support too,” he says. “You need a wide range of actions to happen in concert. If you don’t serve justice, the perpetrator roams free. And that comes back to traumatize the victim.… Once a victim is worried about the perpetrator being free out there, she’s less likely to fully recover.” Potes agrees, adding that the psychological trauma is usually worse than the physical; she’d like more resources to go toward victims’ social and psychological recovery. Impunity, Potes insists, has to stop. The man who attacked Vanegas received a 12-year prison sentence for his crime. In less than two years, he was released.
Perpetrators of this unconscionable crime, Potes says, want to send their victims into the shadows, to force them into a place where their pain is more than physical — where it’s emotional and lasts forever. González is playing a small but crucial part in helping Colombia’s victims climb back into society. Hopefully, says Shah, attitudes will gradually change as more of these women defy their attackers by showing their faces again.
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