By William Booth, CARTAGENA, Colombia : Whatever really happened here in the neon bordellos, salsa clubs and king-size beds at the Hotel Caribe — between the male Secret Service officers and their new female friends — one thing is apparent: The agents were in the right place to get into trouble.Cartagena is swimming in prostitutes.On Saturday night in front of the Tu Candela bar, where some of the U.S. agents reportedly cavorted, young women dressed in jeans and flats leapt from taxis, ran around the corner, changed clothes and emerged transformed: in tiny black dresses and high heels and ready to “party.”
Within minutes, they were stroking the liver spots of some aging Spaniard or working an eager German tourist. And away the couples went — for a few hours of drinking and dancing and then back to the hotels.
Nothing subtle about it.
Prostitution in Colombia is legal and widely accepted, a slightly embarrassing but very real part of the booming tourist trade here, as the nation sheds its international reputation for hyper-violent cocaine cartels (Pablo Escobar, rest in peace), and the tourists return to appreciate the beautiful beaches, great rum and colonial architecture of cities such as Cartagena, a World Heritage site.
When the news broke that 11 Secret Service agents and officers were sent home for romping with hookers on the eve of President Obama’s trip to the Organization of American States summit, many Colombians were amused.
“It is normal, no? These are our beauty queens,” said Elgoyo Payares, owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban-style restaurant-bar in the old city. “And a man, even a secret agent type, does not leave his private parts at home when he travels.”
But the lighthearted response shifted when it became clear that the Secret Service scandal was overwhelming the good news about a peaceful, prosperous Colombia.
“It is a shame, because we have so much to offer, not just girls,” said Angela Vazquez, who works at a car dealership in Bogota and was enjoying a mojito at one of the hemisphere’s best-known salsa joints, the Cafe Havana, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton danced at the close of the summit last week.
But, Vazquez sighed, maybe it was getting a little out of hand. Outside the Cafe Havana, streetwalkers were swarming around male tourists, hissing “Hola, papi!” and begging to join them for a drink.
Students and secretaries
“Our message is simple. Don’t come here to sleep with our girls, our children. They’re just teenagers. It’s disgusting,” said Blanca Castillo, who owns a jade jewelry store in the old city and volunteers for a group that pushes authorities to keep minors out of the sex trade.
Locals worry that many of the escorts — the euphemism of choice here — are amateurs, some of them college students, others moonlighting secretaries and shop clerks. A 2010 study by Edgar Alfonso Acuna of the University of San Buenaventura estimated that 2 percent of Cartagena college students were working as escorts, motivated by their desire to buy luxury goods and stylish clothes, and reporting monthly incomes of $2,000 to $3,000. Castillo said the scandal hurt Colombia’s reputation. “Aren’t there prostitutes in Washington, too?” she asked.
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