SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Yocairi Amarante Rodríguez was heading to a beauty salon in Santo Domingo last fall when two men on a motorcycle sped up to her car and chucked a container of “ácido del diablo,” containing sulfuric acid used for plumbing and sewer cleaning, through an open window and onto her face.
At first, she thought, Damn it, they've thrown coffee on me , she recalled in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
But then the liquid started to burn.
The 19-year-old jumped out of the car, crying for help as bits of clothing and skin melted off her body. The driver was also injured.
"They've thrown acid on her!" she remembers a woman nearby shouting.
She was rushed to the hospital. It was Sept. 25. Days earlier, the man who police said planned the attack — her ex-boyfriend — directed an alleged accomplice on how to carry out the attack, according to documents obtained at the Ciudad Nueva Courthouse.
"En la misma cara en la frente," he allegedly wrote in a text. "On the face, the forehead."
Her attack is reflective of increasing violence against women in Latin America. It gained widespread attention, including a passionate video from Cardi B on Instagram. Amarante Rodríguez spoke at length for the first time about the assault and the recovery process with BuzzFeed News, which can also reveal details from court records and police documents detailing the lengths at which her ex-boyfriend, Willy Antonio Javier Monegro, allegedly physically and verbally abused her before her appearance and life were permanently altered. She now intends to use people's generous donations to open a salon of her own.
Amarante Rodríguez was treated at one of the Dominican Republic's only burn units. "She almost died," said Dr. Eddy Bruno, burn unit director at Ney Arias Lora Hospital.
Before treating Amarante Rodríguez in person, Bruno reviewed photos of her, which showed burns on her face, neck, and right leg. Doctors were forced to let the acid act for up to five days before treating her, he said.
She would remain in Bruno's care for two months, during which she would undergo about nine surgeries to remove dead tissue and apply skin grafts.
She was discharged in November 2020, and she has a long road to recovery ahead. She's lost her right eye, more than 50% of the vision in her left eye, and her right nipple. Hypertrophic scars caused by the acid run down her neck, chest, breasts, arms, and legs.
Amarante Rodríguez spent days working in her sister's salon braiding hair and playing with curling irons as a girl. Now, parts of her scalp will never grow hair again.
"Look at how I was before," she said, scrolling through photos on her phone of herself with long curly hair and light hazel eyes.
"Now look at how I am," she said, stripping the bandages off her face and lifting up her shirt to expose her scars. "That's how he left me."
As she was recovering in the hospital, news of her attack spread on social media. Cardi B posted a video on Instagram holding a Barbie doll dressed in scrubs and slamming it down on a table feetfirst.
"People of the Dominican Republic," she says in Spanish in the video. "I'm going to tell my dad to put me in contact with the police or any person of the Dominican Republic, and I'm going to offer $10,000 — not pesos, $10,000 — to whoever finds the people that are responsible for throwing devil's acid on that girl whose face they burned."
She added, "There should be justice."
Santiago Matías, a popular Dominican radio personality, posted on his Instagram that he donated roughly $1,700 to help with her medical expenses and put up about $5,000 for information on the perpetrators.
For Amarante Rodríguez, who made around $224 a month selling lamps at a hardware store near the Dominican capital's Avenida Duarte shopping district, the donations meant a lot.
"I felt a lot of happiness because I felt a lot of support from the people of the town, many prayers," she said. "I had to understand that my life was not going to end with this."
By Sept. 30, police identified and arrested the alleged attackers — Joan José Feliz, Pedro Alexander Sosa Méndez, and her ex-boyfriend and father to her 2-year-old daughter, Willy Antonio Javier Monegro.
Together, the three men spent 15 days plotting the attack, according to court documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
According to the documents, Javier Monegro contacted Sosa Méndez in early September, offering to pay him approximately $431 to throw acid on Amarante Rodríguez. He allegedly agreed and received roughly $60 before the attack.
Sosa Méndez then sought out Feliz as the third accomplice, according to court records. Javier Monegro told both men where Amarante Rodríguez worked and lived; he showed them a photograph they could use to recognize her, according to the records.
WhatsApp messages that were included in the court documents show that the men kept in touch the days leading up to the attack.
"Dame bien la ora k eya sale," Sosa Méndez texted Javier Monegro on Sept. 21. "Tell me exactly what time she gets out."
"Mete mano ya estoy De seperao," he replied the next day. "Hustle, I'm desperate."
"Trakilo eso va hoy," Sosa Méndez responded. "Don't worry, it's going today."
"En la misma cara en la frente," Javier Monegro wrote. "On the face, the forehead."
On Sept. 25, Sosa Méndez and Feliz waited for Amarante Rodríguez to leave work, according to the court records. As she jumped into the passenger side of a Toyota Corolla, they followed her on a motorcycle.
Sosa Méndez revved up the motorcycle, and Feliz threw the acid at her through an open window, according to court documents. The attack was captured on surveillance footage , helping the police identify and arrest the men purported to be involved in the attack.
Javier Monegro was charged with criminal association, torture or act of barbarism, and intrafamily violence, according to the documents. In court, he chose to remain silent.
The charges against Sosa Méndez and Feliz are criminal association, torture or act of barbarism, and voluntary blows and wounds.
During criminal proceedings, the three men have denied their involvement in the attack.
In an October hearing to decide if the men should be jailed for a year, Sosa Méndez said he wasn't the person on video, adding that police told him that "they were going to make [him] talk with a bat."
In court, Feliz also alleged that police had tried to beat him into cooperating and insisted that the motorcycle involved in the attack is not his.
The public defender representing Sosa Méndez and Feliz added, "They interrogated them without their lawyers being present. The evidence presented by the public ministry is illegal because it was obtained in an illegitimate way."
A spokesperson for Dominican Republic National Police did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations made in court.
The three men have been placed in jail for a year, where they'll likely remain until the conclusion of the trial. On Feb. 19, 2021, a court ruled that the case would move forward, but it is unclear exactly when the trial will begin.
In a phone call last month, Ronell Rosado, an attorney representing Javier Monegro, declined to comment on his client's case.
The lawyer listed as representing both Sosa Méndez and Feliz did not respond to an email requesting comment.
By her own account, Amarante Rodríguez met Javier Monegro when she was 14 and he was 29. He worked at the factory in front of her grandmother's house.
One day, she asked him to give her a ride on his motorcycle. The two quickly became a couple, and she moved into his mother's house that year.
They stayed together for five years. When she was 16, she became pregnant and dropped out of school. Throughout their relationship, he repeatedly verbally and physically assaulted her, she said, adding that she had never told anyone about the alleged abuse.
In a December interview with a forensic psychologist, a transcript of which was part of police records, she said he kept her trapped in his mother’s house and forced her to cook and clean. He did not let her leave the house without him, she said.
During fights, she said, he would push her, pull her hair, and call her derogatory names in vulgar Dominican slang that loosely translate to "motherfucker" and "cocksucker."
When Javier Monegro allegedly tried to choke her in front of her sister, who intervened and tried to hit him with a bottle, Amarante Rodríguez told the forensic psychologist.
He was remorseful after attacking her, she said during the interview. She accepted his apologies because she was in love with him.
She said she ended the relationship in early 2020.
Rosado, Javier Monegro's lawyer, said his client never physically or verbally abused her. In an email to BuzzFeed News, the lawyer said there is no evidence to support her allegations, calling them “only words and the accusation.”
“The victim can say what she wants but there is nothing to prove it,” Rosado said in an email.
Marcia Aguiluz, managing attorney for Women's Link Worldwide, a nonprofit aimed at ensuring gender equality, said the rise of domestic violence across Latin America and the Caribbean stems from the historical discrimination against women across the region and machismo — the concept of exaggerated masculinity.
In a Zoom interview from Costa Rica, Aguiluz said that cases of domestic violence in Latin America are not isolated incidents.
"They are a manifestation of that stereotype that women belong to men," she said.
According to court documents, Javier Monegro continued to harass her after their relationship ended, calling her as many as 44 times in one day. She subsequently blocked him on WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook.
Two months after their breakup, Amarante Rodríguez started a relationship with her current boyfriend, something that made Javier Monegro feel bad, according to police records. His neighbors made negative comments about her being with another man, he told police.
Two weeks before the attack, she said she ran into one of Javier Monegro's friends, who told her to be careful because he was becoming increasingly aggressive.
"I never thought he'd do this to me," she said.
The first time she saw her own face, she was at home. Acid attack survivors are not allowed to look at themselves in the mirror while in the hospital, her doctor said.
She said her reflection stirred up suicidal thoughts, which she overcame by thinking about her daughter.
Natalia Ponce de León, who survived an attack in 2014 in Colombia, said she wanted to die after a man doused her in sulfuric acid.
She would go on to form the Natalia Ponce de León Foundation, which was instrumental in passing a law ensuring women in Colombia receive free medical and psychological care after an acid attack. Juan Manuel Santos, then the president of Colombia, signed the bill in 2016.
A year later, Melania Trump, then the first lady, presented Ponce with the International Women of Courage Award in Washington, DC.
Ponce told BuzzFeed News there is still more work to be done globally to support survivors. She wants more laws, like the one she helped create in her own country, to be implemented elsewhere.
In the "Dominican Republic [and] Mexico, there is no regulation. There is no law that protects victims of attacks with chemical agents," Ponce said. "And this is a profound pain because it really should be strongly punished."
Survivors from the Dominican Republic have been turning to her charity for help, Ponce said, adding that many of them want to travel to Colombia to have their surgeries.
"They have to work for their rights — every one of them, in their own country," she said.
On the day Amarante Rodríguez came home from the hospital, her family threw her a surprise party. Her daughter, Winny, who she hadn't seen in months, didn't recognize her.
"When she saw me, the first thing she said to me was 'Ahh! A cuco!'" a reference to a mythical monster, Amarante Rodríguez recalled. "I collapsed and began to cry."
She is gearing up for more than 10 reconstructive surgeries. The burns continue to itch throughout the night. Her left eye is glazed over and doesn't fully close.
Though she's hopeful, she knows she'll never look like the woman in her Instagram pictures again.
She is focused on taking care of her child and opening a salon with money Cardi B gifted her.
After police arrested the men accused in the attack, Cardi B donated part of the reward money to her.
Amarante Rodríguez still has not been able to personally thank the hip-hop star for her generosity. "I thank Cardi B very much," she said, excitement filling her voice.
Cardi B's representatives did not respond to email requests for comment.
Amarante Rodríguez recently ordered new signs for the salon that read: "Yocairi Beauty Center." She hopes to open later this year in the Villa Consuelo neighborhood of Santo Domingo.
Though she's uncertain about her future, she wants to finish high school someday and own a thriving business. The rest is in God's hands, she said.
Her daughter doesn't know her mother's story to the fullest extent, she said. She's told Winny that she burned herself in a fire. If she someday finds out what happened, she said, it won't be from her.
Amarante Rodríguez is happy to be alive. She spends her days laughing with siblings and cousins. Her sense of humor hasn't diminished. Her boyfriend hasn't left her side.
She implores younger women to stay in school and report boyfriends at the first sign of abuse. "Don't stay silent," she said. "For staying silent and not reporting it — this happened to me." •
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