LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Colombia, there's been a startling number of acid attacks against women. Sometimes the attacker is a spurned lover or jealous husband, sometimes a stranger. Officials say it's likely that more of these attacks have happened than have been reported.

NPR's Juan Forero has this report from Bogota. Again, some details are hard to hear.

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JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: A brass band provides a festive touch outside this huge wholesale market in Bogota's working class south. Inside, it's a flurry of activity as sellers unload the fruits and vegetables that supply a metropolis. And in the midst of all of all this is Consuelo Cordoba. She wears a hat down low and a skin-tight mask, to cover the injuries on her face.

CONSUELO CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She's part of the landscape here, too, but she comes to beg. Like other victims of acid attacks, she can't get a job - prospective employers simply don't want to hire someone whose face has been seared off.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I come here to earn a living, to meet my obligations, Cordoba says, people here know my situation.

Her situation is nothing short of horrific. A decade ago, for reasons she's still not clear about, her partner tossed acid on her face. It blinded her in one eye, burned off an ear and her nose, shredded her lower face, and severely damaged her teeth. She's undergone one operation after another and has to breathe through a special tube that sticks out of her nose. Cordoba says it's sometimes too much for her.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I've thought about committing suicide three times, she says. I say to myself, why live? What for?

Acid attacks have gotten a lot of attention in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. But they've been more rare in the West. In Colombia, attacks that were once sporadic are now becoming increasingly common. Olga Rubio, a Bogota councilwoman, says as many as 100 people - most of them women - have been attacked just this year.

OLGA RUBIO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: We have a machista society, a society that doesn't permit equality in the workplace, Rubio says. She adds that many men also treat women as objects. She and a senator from her party, Carlos Baena, are proposing legislation that would require acid sales to be registered. They also want to dramatically increase criminal penalties because acid attacks often lead to little or no jail time.

Colombia's attorney general, Eduardo Montealegre, told NPR he's putting together a special team of prosecutors and evidence-collection experts to investigate the crimes.

EDUARDO MONTEALEGRE: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Montealegre says the crimes that are reported do not accurately represent the true number of cases. He says that's because sometimes the attacker is a relative of the victim. And the victim then fears what might happen to her should she file a report. In Consuelo Cordoba's case, she went to authorities and the man who attacked her served a short jail stint. But that was years ago and she's now simply focused on surviving.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Out on the street on a recent day, she runs errands. It's a sunny day, but she's dressed with a heavy jacket, a sweater, her mask, of course. Going out also means having to put up with strangers.

CORDOBA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Some just stare, she says. Others make fun. She says it's hard, but she just tries to get on with her life.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota.

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