The Secret Service scandal, involving a reported 20 Colombian prostitutes and members of the U.S. government agency employed to protect President Obama at the Summit of Americans in the port city of Cartagena, has shed light on the business of prostitution in Colombia.
The Secret Service became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed that a Colombian woman claimed to hotel officials and law enforcement that a Secret Service agent owed and refused to pay her the money for her services.
The 11 Secret Service agents, many of them married, brought 20 or 21 Colombian women to the beachfront Hotel Caribe, reported the Daily Mail. The 20 prostitutes supposedly involved in the Secret Service scandal were reportedly from the Pley Club, a gentleman's club located in the low-rent district of Cartagena, Colombia, where girls dance on stage, in a shower or in "pley rooms" where fantasies become reality. Other locations are reportedly under investigation, as well, and no specific location has yet been identified.
Anyone visiting the Hotel Caribe overnight was required to leave identification at the front desk and leave the premises of the hotel promptly at 7 a.m. However, when a woman failed to leave, the hotel staff notified the police. The woman, reportedly a dancer/prostitute from the Pley Club, told authorities that one of the Secret Service agents owed her $47 and still had not paid. This woman has been identified as Dania Suarez.
"There was a dispute the next morning when one of the women did not leave the room," said Rep. Peter King, R-NY, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "Police came and she refused to leave until she was paid for her services." The incident was then reported to the U.S. Embassy.
New reports Wednesday revealed further depravity.
"When I went upstairs I walked into a messy room. The room was littered with two whiskey bottles - and a line of white powder, I believed to be cocaine, was on top of a round glass table in the room," a hotel employee from Hotel Caribe told The New York Post.
FOX News later reported on Wednesday that a Colombian state agency announced an investigation will be launched into the Secret Service scandal to determine if underage prostitutes were involved in the incident. The report came from the Colombian daily El Tiempo, which said that although no formal complaints have been issued about underage prostitutes, the head of Colombia's Institute for Family Wellbeing, Maria Rosario Blanco, wants to move forward with the investigation.
Prostitution is legal in Colombia in designated "tolerance zones," according to the 2008 Human Rights Report published by the U.S. Department of State.However, enforcement of the restriction to these zones is difficult to maintain. Such lax prostitution laws are making Colombia a haven for sex tourism. The Human Rights Reports states that prostitution in Colombia is exacerbated by both poverty and internal displacement.
Sex workers can be found walking around the Cartagena region, in the streets, the bars, the hotels and the private clubs, looking for ready and willing customers. The New York Times reported that these women can charge $300 or more to go out with the customers.
Some prostitutes think that the recent Secret Service scandal will bring more customers to their city. "Now we are world-class, with the president's bodyguards coming to try out Colombian girls," one freelance prostitute who works the streets of Cartagena told The NY Times. She moved from her hometown, Cali, because she preferred the "well-heeled foreign clients" in Cartagena.
However, prostitution remains a dangerous business.
In its 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department found that Colombia is one of the Western Hemisphere's "major source countries for women and girls trafficked abroad for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation."
Child prostitution is a serious issue in Colombia. Colombia's Institute for Family Wellbeing reported that approximately 35,000 Colombian children are in the sex business, with an estimated 2,000 in Cartagena.
Sex workers in Colombia have even banded together against this problem, refusing to set up underage girls with potential clients, reported FOX News. These sex workers have also enlisted the help of taxi drivers, hotel employees and restaurants workers as well.
The "I am the Wall" project of Colombia was set up to combat underage prostitution. The title of the group references the colonial-era walls that surround the city of Cartagena, reported FOX News.
"Unfortunately, tourists arrive here with money and they're allowed to do anything," a Cartagena prostitute and participant in the project named Damaris told Agence France Presse last summer. "What I'm asking is to impose limits. When they ask for kids for sex, don't give them information. Remember that they're kids and that they, like your children, are worth more than any tip."
Despite the legality of prostitution in Colombia, solicitation of sex by Secret Service agents is considered inappropriate behavior.
This Secret Service scandal in Colombia might not be as unorthodox as it may sound. The Wall Street Journal reported about a motto amongst current and formal officials in the Secret Service known as "wheels up, rings off."
"According to current and former officials, 'wheels up, rings off,' has long been a running joke among men in the agency, meaning that for some agents, wedding rings were optional after the plane took off, particularly for foreign travel assignments," wrote The Journal's Laura Meckler and Keith Johnson.
Secret Service agency spokesman Edwin Donovan said he had heard the term, but clarified to The Journal that it was not in "wide use." Donovan said the phrase could have originated with other professionals who travel frequently. "The Secret Service has thousands of personnel that participate in hundreds of trips a year all around the world without incident," he said.
Take a look at up-close photos of prostitution in Cartagena, Colombia, in the following slideshow.