Denizens of Cartagena call their Caribbean resort city La Heroica, a reference to this 16th-century seaport’s stoic defense against waves of pirates and corsairs in service to the British and French crowns. In time, holidaymakers replaced the buccaneers, but to hear it from the Colombians the assault by gringo freebooters is not over.
The scandal in which some dozen U.S. Secret Service agents were caught carousing and then bickering with Colombian call girls ahead of the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last weekend has taken a toll. Eleven of Team Obama’s agents have been suspended over their beachside dalliance and several military men are under scrutiny. While the White House is standing by Secret Service director Mark Sullivan, it has ordered a thorough investigation into the Colombian caper as a covey of federal inquisitors is scouring the ramparts from the Beltway to Bogotá for security breaches and terrorists in spandex.
This is not exactly what The Daily Beast had in mind when we predicted a week ago that the then-imminent hemispheric summit was a mine field awaiting President Obama. And with lurid details emerging by the day from Summitgate, the parley’s conference-hall harangues at Tio Sam and in defense of Communist Cuba—a narrative that Obama wearily confessed made him feel as though he were “caught in a time warp”—must seem quaint in hindsight.
Colombians would be forgiven for seeing the episode a little differently. Neither the government of President Juan Manuel Santos nor the management at Hotel Caribe, the five-star hotel where Obama’s security team was lodged, would comment on the incident. And no one is talking at the nightclubs where the U.S. agents began their late-night tear, including the Pleyclub, now dubbed "the White House" for its white façade. But since the agents were caught and packed off home, the event has fueled conversation at bars, public squares, in the media, and at in workplaces. Comments range from the indignant to the merely bemused.
For many, the spectacle of gringos gone wild is no surprise, least of all in Cartagena, a busy port with plenty of sailors and tourists on the prowl. “Cartagena is the Caribbean’s leading hub for prostitution,” says noted Cartagena human-rights advocate Adil Melendez. He said visitors frequently are approached by locals offering “women, boys, and girls at cheap rates,” occasionally with the discreet help of hotel staffers.
Colombia’s Ministry of Industry and Tourism has asked Spirit Airlines, a budget U.S. carrier serving Cartagena, to remove a leading ad from its website, in which a man wearing an earpiece and dark glasses touts the Colombian destination as offering “More bang for your buck.”
But the fact that the clients were top guns apparently moonlighting as sex tourists, and part of the U.S. president’s security detail to boot, has not gone over well. Nor that the whole incident blew up in part because some of the Americans allegedly shortchanged an escort, turning her away from their suite at the Caribe for a fraction of the reported fee of around $250.
“What’s striking is the attitude of these agents, who see Colombia as an inferior country, like a bordello,” Senator Armando Benedetti, of Partido de la U, President Santos’s governing party, told The Daily Beast. “We are not talking about just anyone,” he adds. “We’re talking about the first and second circle of the most powerful man in the world, a country that is not just a military power but the leading culture in the West,” he adds. “And when they come like this and humiliate these women by not paying them, this says a good deal about how they view us—as inferiors, as though we’re a second-rate country.”
The lawmaker’s words were echoed at City Hall in Cartagena. “What a shame this whole commotion occurred because these gentlemen wanted to have sex without paying for it,” says Carlos Figueroa, spokesman for Mayor Campos Elías Terán Dix.
A hotel worker and a Cartagena taxi driver told the The Daily Beast that they believed that the worst of the embarrassing sexcapade might have been avoided had the Americans simply settled up with their escorts. The staffer at the Caribe, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal, said that on the morning of April 12 he saw two women in the hall outside the room of some of the American guests. “They were just knocking, there was no violence. They wanted to be paid,” he said.
Cabdriver José Peña, who drove two of the escorts home from the hotel later that morning, heard much the same story. On the long cab ride home, Peña’s passengers—both strikingly attractive and apparently in their mid-twenties—recounted details of their encounter with the U.S. agents. “It was all a coincidence,” they told Peña. “The night before [April 11] a young woman was in a discotheque called Tu Candela when she and a friend bumped into five men claiming to work for Obama’s security team.”
The two women told Peña that the men invited them back to the Caribe, arriving there around 4 a.m. One of the women said she did not have sex with any of the Americans and received no money. The other told Peña she negotiated a trick for $250, but that the next morning a man handed her 50,000 pesos (around $27) and showed her the door. Disgruntled, the woman began pounding on the hotel-room door to demand the full fee.
A policeman making rounds at the Caribe heard the commotion and intervened. They told the officer that some hotel guests owed them money and, with his help, managed to convince the Americans to cough up an additional $100.
“There was no scandal,” said Peña. “The women were not rowdy or drunk, but simply knocked on the [Americans’] door, demanding they pay the agreed fee.”
In the cab, he noted that the two women “seemed contented to be taking home $100,” and even expressed regret that the police had to intervene. “They were not hookers but escorts, young women looking for an adventure.” In Cartagena, he adds, “these women sometimes look to meet people perhaps in the hope of going abroad and having a better future.”
On the streets of Bogotá, the country’s capital, Summitgate comes less as a surprise than a weary confirmation of business as usual in the Americas. “This is what all gringos do,” Said Liliana Castro, a 17-year-old high-school student. “They think they can come here and do whatever they want because no one tells them no.”