While the death toll resulting from these injections has risen since they became widely available in 2008, it has done little to curb the trend of Venezuelans seeking a quick-fix solution to what they perceive as physical inadequacies. Despite being illegal in Venezuela (sale of silicone carries a two-year prison sentence) the country’s Association of Cosmetic Surgeons estimates that 2,000 women every month are receiving injections of this biopolymer, either at home or illegally at unlicensed businesses.
“The injections take just 20 minutes, but they can never fully be taken out,” says Jesús Pereira, the president of the Venezuelan Plastic Surgeons Association. “100 percent of cases become complicated. It could take four days or it could take 20 years, but eventually the patient will become irreversibly sick.”
Because the practice is banned, women seeking the procedure must find a fitness or beauty-related business that offers the injections in secret (most commonly a beauty salon or gym).
The injections cost, on average, just $8.
The average Venezuelan woman spends 20 percent of her annual salary on beauty products, while 4,000 people go under the knife every month in the name of self-improvement. Indeed, most banks in Venezuela offer long-term loan packages specifically tailored towards plastic surgery procedures.
Sadly, it has taken the death of one of the country’s leading anti-biopolymer campaigners to awaken Venezuela to the dangers of these injections.
Mary Perdomo, the president and founder of the NO to Biopolymers, YES to Life foundation, died several weeks ago as a result of the buttock injections she received four years ago. The mother of three had used her worsening illness as a method to teach fellow Venezuelans about the fatal risks the phenomenon poses.
In 2009, Perdomo underwent the standard procedure of having 560cc of the poisonous biopolymer injected into each cheek. Three months later she began to have trouble sleeping and later discovered tumors that had formed in the affected area. In 2012, the health campaigner was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease: a direct result of her body’s reaction to the foreign chemicals. She died earlier this month following a heart attack.
Perdomo’s legacy lives on through the various organizations that work to educate young Venezuelans about biopolymers.
“For the past three years I’ve been on a daily cocktail of painkillers and antibiotics, it’s the only way I can live with the pain,” says Astrid de la Rosa, who uses herself as an example as she tours middle schools in the Caracas area.
“More than the physical agony, I was psychologically damaged by what happened to me,” she said. “When the rashes and fevers began, my partner left me, and I was left alone with a 4-year-old child whom I couldn’t support because I couldn’t physically work”.
De la Rosa, along with the NO to Biopolymers foundation, claims the government needs to work harder to educate young Venezuelans about the dangers of liquid silicone, and fight to stop the procedure, which is now classified as a “public health issue,” from being offered in the first place.
“Lamentably, the majority of the people receiving these injections are young women from poorer backgrounds who haven’t been educated to the enormous risks that these injections pose,” Pereira said. “They feel put under pressure by friends or society, and look for quick solutions.”
Despite Venezuelan law imposing strict sanctions over the handling of biopolymers, state regulation here is minimal. Those who wish to conduct the procedure themselves need only to source the biopolymer through Internet vendors, a very simple task, as I discovered when I did a quick search for a 500cc bottle myself.
“It’s very simple,” said Omaira, an internet vendor who asked her last name not be used. Omaira advertises her wares on the Latin American second-hand market website mercadolibre.com “You have to transfer the 350 Bolívars ($8.50) into my bank account, and I’ll send someone out to deliver them.”
“What we do is completely illegal, so you can’t come to the place where we stock the substance,” she said. “But we’ve never had any problems with the police, nor has anyone who has ever bought this product from us”.
It is perhaps unsurprising that biopolymer-related illness is on the rise in Venezuela.
These injections are the latest in a long list of extreme beauty procedures in this beauty-obsessed country. Other extreme self-improvement methods include fasting pacts among friends, vomit-inducing syrup, and most recently the sewing of a plastic patch onto the tongue, which renders the consumption of solid food extremely painful.
Venezuela’s beauty trade is worth an annual average of $2.5 billion dollars in a nation whose population is just 29 million. Only petroleum is more profitable.
The country also has a reputation for beautiful women -- it holds the Guinness World Record for the nation with the most international beauty queens. “Las Miss” (The Misses) as they are known in Venezuela go on to profitable careers. In 1998, former Venezuelan Miss Universe Irene Saez unsuccessfully ran against Hugo Chavez for the country’s presidency.
“Every girl here dreams of being a Miss. We Venezuelans see those people as the perfect women,” says Maria Trinidad, a representative of the NO to Biopolymers foundation who sold her car in order to pay for an invasive surgery to remove her injections.
“When you live in a country where a beautiful woman has greater career prospects than someone with a strong work ethic and first-class education, you are forced into the mindset that there is nothing more important than beauty.”
“To be ‘operada’ (to have undergone plastic surgery) is completely normal in Venezuela,” says Oriana Gonzalez, who paid for her own breast enhancements at age 20 over the protestations of her parents. “It’s simply not viewed as extreme in the way that other cultures perceive it.”
As a result of this more open mindset toward surgically enhanced physicality, Venezuela has garnered an international reputation as an inexpensive and safe destination for plastic surgery. While the average price for silicone implants in the United States is $8,000, the same procedure in the South American nation costs just $800.
“Education is the key,” said De la Rosa. “If we can teach the next generations that these quick-fix solutions to looking our best aren’t actually solutions at all, then we have a better chance.”
“As for Venezuelan men, they shouldn’t worry,” she says. “We’re still the most beautiful women in the world.”