Secret Service scandal: an embarrassment for Colombian city, too

Officials in Cartagena are protesting the negative image their city is earning amid the blanket coverage of a Secret Service prostitute scandal.

Prostitutes walk in front of the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia, April 17. As many as 21 women were brought back to a hotel in Colombia by U.S. Secret Service and military personnel in an incident last week involving alleged misconduct with prostitutes, US Senator Susan Collins said on Tuesday.

Many Colombians are snickering at what they see as American media's obsession with a prostitute scandal involving Secret Service agents at the Summit of the Americas – chalking it up to the "Puritan legacy" of the United States. But officials in Cartagena are expressing anger at much of the nonstop coverage, saying it casts their city – a colonial gem of cobblestoned streets, surrounded by the extremes of sprawling slums and high-rise luxury – in a bad light. 

And the media aren't the only outlets attracting their ire. Spirit Airlines has already launched an ad campaign for flights to Cartagena that features Secret-Service-style men, a suggestive slogan, and scantily clad women. “Upfront payment is required,” the ad reads. Some Colombian feminists are calling for a boycott of the low cost airline.

To Mayor Campo Elias Terán, it is too much. “Cartagena women are respectable and you cannot generalize as if the city were filled with prostitutes,” he says.

Prostitution is legal in Colombia and mayors can designate certain “tolerance zones” where the activity is regulated. But that may be more the ideal than the reality: countless male friends and colleagues have told me about taxi drivers, bartenders, and waiters offering to arrange meetings with anyone from call girls to underage girls.

Colombian national television has mostly focused on covering the story about the story, reporting on the fact that US media has gone to town with all the details of what happened. Some 11 Secret Security agents and a handful of soldiers in Colombia as part of President Obama’s advance security detail allegedly violated curfew and protocol, bringing back at least 20 prostitutes to their beachside hotel.  One of the men shortchanged one of the women, according to The New York Times, which interviewed her, and she complained to authorities.

No one argues that the security concerns over wayward agents who are supposed to protect the US president aren't legitimate. Colombia is, after all, home to one of the longest-running Marxist insurgencies in the world, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with 9,200 fighters, according to police intelligence estimates. The FARC, which the US designates as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, could have conceivably planted a woman rebel to seduce the servicemen.

Even FARC leaders, however, probably thought that getting that close to Obama’s security would have been impossible.

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