CARTAGENA, Colombia — Days after U.S. Secret Service agents were sent home over allegations of hard-partying and bringing prostitutes to their hotel, the mayor of this Caribbean city was wondering what all the fuss was all about.
After all, prostitution is legal in Colombia, and it's a big draw of this steamy Caribbean port where sex is as easy to buy as a bottle of beer.
"It doesn't bother people at all," Mayor Campo Elias said Tuesday, echoing many of his constituents. "First, because adults were involved and, second, because here, it's normal."
To find a prostitute, guests at the hotel where the Secret Service agents stayed ahead of President Barack Obama's recent visit need only step out to the beach. There, scrappy men peddle everything from shrimp cocktails to sex workers.
"I think prostitution is part of the city's culture. That is, a tourist comes to Cartagena and it's part of his plan to look for company," said Gerardo Javier May, a security industry executive.
In Washington Tuesday, Secret Service officials began briefing U.S. Congress members over allegations that agents took prostitutes to their hotel before the Summit of Americas attended last weekend by Obama.
Elias said he understands the national security implications of having people tasked with protecting the U.S. president sleeping with strangers in a country where leftist insurgents are fighting a close military ally of Washington.
Colombian authorities, meanwhile, won't discuss the scandal. Nor will the beachfront Hotel Caribe, where the Americans stayed. The hotel's spokeswoman said the matter was strictly between the hotel and U.S. officials.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told her Tuesday that 20 or 21 women were brought to the hotel where Marines were also staying.
Another U.S. congressman briefed about the incident, Peter King of New York, said a prostitute had complained Thursday morning that one of the Americans didn't pay her and that hotel staff and police became involved. It was then discovered that "nearly all" of a group of 11 Secret Service agents had taken women to their rooms, he said. Later Thursday, the agents were hastily removed from the country.
Another 10 U.S. personnel were involved in alleged misconduct but not sent home, an American official in Cartagena told The Associated Press on Friday evening, just after Obama arrived in Cartagena. The official did not specify their affiliation and requested anonymity due to the information's sensitivity.
Senior U.S. military officials said they were service members, though the nature of alleged transgressions by the other American personnel remains unclear. Initially, officials said five had violated curfew.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday that the nation's military leadership is embarrassed by allegations of misconduct against at least 10 U.S. military members at the hotel before Obama's visit. "We let the boss down," said Dempsey.
What is clear is that members of Obama's advance team were engaged in serious partying. Three waiters at the hotel told the AP that a dozen Americans they believed to U.S. presidential bodyguards engaged in nearly a week of heavy drinking at the hotel.
"Normally they would have lunch and start to drink," said one waiter, Jorge, who agreed to speak on condition his last name not be used because he feared he'd lose his job.
Initially, the Americans drank the hotel's liquor, then brought in beer and tequila purchased outside, the waiters said. Jorge said because they were Americans, they tolerated the violation of hotel's liquor policy.
"When they were good and drunk they would get in the pool and play water polo," he said.
On Thursday afternoon, a man who appeared to be their supervisor summoned the agents to the hotel's back patio and "dressed them down one by one," Jorge said. They were sent to their rooms to pack their bags and left in haste, he said.
The regional police commander, Gen. Luis Restrepo, told the AP on Tuesday that he had no information about what happened.
"The hotel surely did not consider that a crime was committed and for that reason there is no criminal complaint," said Restrepo. "At this point, we have no report in our books, not from the station, not from city police headquarters."
Desk clerks at the Hotel Caribe told the AP that guests routinely take women to their rooms. All the hotel requires, they said, is anyone visiting a guest's room between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. is also registered and a surcharge is paid.
At almost all hours, prostitutes are available nearby. Five propositioned a foreigner two blocks from the hotel at 1:30 a.m. on Monday, several beckoning from across the avenue.
Cartagena's sex trade comes in many forms, from desperate poor women charging less than $20 in grimy hostels near the bus station to call girls with their own apartments who charge $500 or more.
Child prostitution is illegal and the city has in recent years campaigned heavily, with some success, to discourage hotels from letting guests enter with underaged prostitutes, said Pilar Morad, a University of Cartagena sociologist.
Just like Havana, Rio de Janeiro and beach resorts in the Dominican Republic, Cartagena has become a magnet for sex tourism.
"People think of this city as a place of uncontrolled partying," said Morad. "People also think of this city as a place of uncontrolled sexuality."
Prostitutes are even bused in from elsewhere in Colombia for conventions that attract large groups of foreigners.
Many sex workers are like Angelica Rosales, a 24-year-old from out of town encountered Monday on the beach in front of the Hotel Caribe under a straw hat and umbrella sipping vodka out of a coconut.
"I got here two weeks ago and I'm doing great," said Rosales, a white see-through dress covering her red bikini. "I've earned 6 milion pesos ($3,400)." She said she charges the equivalent of $112 for intercourse.
Rosales said she had met four apparent members of the U.S. security team on the beach, but didn't have sex with them and didn't know the women who had.
Rosales said she heard the Americans met the prostitutes on the beach. But they could also have come from such locales as La Dolce Vita, a bar two blocks away, or the Pley Club, a strip club and brothel in a nearby truckers' district.
At the Pley Club one recent evening, a heavily made-up woman in a cowboy hat stripped down to a G-string and did a pole dance to deafening tech music. Women and men negotiated sex at the white plastic tables around her.
The club's bouncer, who would only give his name as Alvaro, denied reports that the Americans had caused a ruckus there Wednesday night when they refused to pay for liquor and prostitutes.
"Everyone pays in advance here," said Alvaro, "both for the liquor and for the girls."
Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona and Pedro Mendoza contributed to this report.
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