London (CNN) — When two teenage boys threw acid at a food delivery driver and tried to steal his scooter, young Londoners sipping on cocktails at a nearby dim sum bar became their unwitting audience.
The acid attack, outside the Drunken Monkey in east London’s Shoreditch district, was just one of five that the boys carried out in less than 90 minutes one night in July, prosecutors say. The boys deny charges against them.
Acid attacks in London have increased dramatically in recent years, and police and lawmakers are now mulling ways to make weaponized acid, or “face melters,” more difficult to obtain.
“Most of the products can be bought off the shelf — so drain cleaner, oven cleaner — there are different types of sulfuric acid you can buy, and ammonia,” said Chief Superintendent Simon Laurence of Hackney borough in east London.
But those closer to the issue say that the police and politicians are missing the underlying cause of the issue — young men in London’s pockets of poverty have a lack of opportunity and little to do. And austerity hasn’t helped.
Police have suggested that gang members may be switching to acid over knives and guns, as the liquid is harder to detect. But knife and gun crimes are also on the rise, as is serious youth violence as a whole, according to the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.
And just like knife and gun crimes, acid attacks have become a predominantly male-on-male problem, increasingly carried out by street gangs.
“Acid throwing has been adopted by urban street gangs in a way that perhaps we haven’t seen for a very long time,” Laurence said.
“The majority of victims are young males. And the majority of the suspects are males — young men on young men.”
This is where London bucks the trend. Globally, acid attacks are still mostly carried out by men against women close to them. They are particularly common in South Asia, where male attackers use the weapon to disfigure women as a form or punishment or control.
In London, the attacks are heavily concentrated in the east of the city, where young professionals and the deprived live cheek by jowl as patches of the area rapidly gentrify. In 2016, 454 acid attacks were reported across the city, up from 261 the year before, and 166 in 2014. In each of those years, more than half of the attacks were in east London.
And this year, there have been regular reports of more acid attacks in the east. On September 23, six males were injured by acid thrown during a fight at the Stratford Centre shopping mall in Newham, just yards from the London 2012 Olympic park. In August, a man was left with serious burns and scars after a drug dealer in Newham threw acid at him when he declined to buy marijuana.