CARTAGENA, Colombia, (Reuters) – U.S. Secret Service agents and soldiers tasked with protecting President Barack Obama at a summit in Colombia have instead embarrassed the United States by cavorting with prostitutes.
The still murky incident involving 16 security personnel and a number of prostitutes in the steamy Caribbean city of Cartagena gave a racy aura to a normally high-minded diplomatic gathering.
For the White House, the scandal at the Summit of the Americas added an unwelcome twist to Obama’s efforts to win back a region where U.S. influence is steadily waning.
It also weakens the Secret Service’s reputation and raises questions about the quality of protection the president receives given such behavior by his staff in a country where guerrilla groups and drug gangs are still active.
A Colombian policeman and U.S. Congressman Peter King, who heads a committee that oversees the Secret Service, said women were taken back to the men’s hotel rooms.
The situation apparently came to a head when hotel staff refused to allow a prostitute up without first registering her, the policemen told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
“When the hotel desk refused, they said ‘Come on, we’re Secret Service’,” he said.
In a trickle of statements meant to fend off the swirling controversy, the U.S. government has referred only to “alleged misconduct” and started an investigation.
But it confirmed grounding five military servicemen in their hotel and sending home 11 agents of the Secret Service, known for their dark shades, sharp suits and glaring demeanor.
The incident took place in Cartagena’s Hotel Caribe, a luxurious colonial-style building with a modern wing attached, located in an area of high-rises frequented by well-heeled locals and tourists drawn to the city’s beaches.
It is near the Hilton, where Obama stayed.
The public relations manager of the Hotel Caribe declined to provide details of the incident. She asked media instead to report on the cordial welcome she had given journalists in a coastal town famous for its charm and warmth.
Prostitution is legal in “tolerance zones” in Colombia, though it is also widely practiced outside those areas without sanction.
The White House said Obama was staying focused on his agenda of job creation through better economic integration with Latin American and the Caribbean.
“Our focus here, the president’s focus, continues to be on the meetings he’s having,” spokesman Jay Carney said.
Local residents were not impressed by the scandal.
“We don’t like what they did. It makes our city look bad. They came to look after their president, not to have a party,” said Cartagena street-vendor Rosa Elena Prieto. “The weak flesh of men costs them their jobs.”
Cartagena, with its cobble-stoned colonial quarter, has been known for years as a hedonistic playground with thriving nightlife, free-flowing rum and salsa music. It was featured in the 1984 Hollywood action comedy “Romancing the Stone.”
English-speaking “fixers” in the city often provide foreign tourists with a range of shady diversions including prostitutes, cocaine and cock-fights.
An official at one of the main summit hotels said the composition of the U.S. security contingent was altered after the incident to include more Spanish-speaking women.
“There are a lot more women than before. They speak Spanish and they are very rigorous,” she said.
U.S. soldiers and contractors participating in U.S.-backed anti-narcotics efforts in Colombia have in the past been involved in sex scandals in rural areas near the bases where they were stationed.