Fernando Vergara, Associated Press
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.
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