In Agent Scandal, Inquiry Leads to Colombian Bordellos

Apr 18, 2012 Issues: -

New York Times -- by William Neuman and Michael S. Schmidt

CARTAGENA, Colombia — At the Ligueros Club, one of many busy bordellos in this seaside tourist city, prostitutes dressed in lingerie wait for a bell to ring, signaling the arrival of men on the prowl. But the next group of American visitors to walk in the door may not be customers at all.

American investigators seeking to get to the bottom of the reported late-night activities of a group of Secret Service agents and military personnel assigned to President Obama’s recent visit to Colombia have begun searching for as many as 21 women who are believed to include prostitutes and to have spent the night with the security officers, American security officials say.

After uncovering evidence of misconduct, investigators for the Secret Service are seeking to interview women who are said to have accompanied 11 agents — including snipers and explosives experts — to their hotel rooms after a night of heavy drinking, said Representative Peter T. King, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The agency knows their identities because the hotel where they stayed had a policy requiring women to leave copies of their identification cards before going into rooms, said Mr. King, a New York Republican who was briefed on the investigation on Tuesday morning by Mark Sullivan, the Secret Service director.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who was also briefed on the investigation by Mr. Sullivan, said a total of 20 to 21 local women were brought into the sprawling beachfront complex called the Hotel Caribe. She said that some of the women accompanied Secret Service agents and that others escorted members of the military, which is conducting its own investigation.

Prostitution is legal in Colombia in “tolerance zones.” A number of brothels in Cartagena are in these zones.

On Monday, an Air Force colonel and a military lawyer arrived in Colombia to conduct an investigation on behalf of the Defense Department, said Col. Scott Malcom, the chief spokesman for the United States Southern Command in Miami.

The enlisted personnel under scrutiny include two Marine dog handlers; at least one member of the Green Berets from the Seventh Special Forces Group, which focuses on South America; and Air Force and Navy personnel who specialize in the disposal of explosives.

The dual investigations have cast a light on Cartagena’s freewheeling nightlife, where prostitutes walk the street, the bars and an array of private clubs, where they sometimes live and in some cases charge $300 or more to go out with customers. Exactly where the American security personnel met the women they reportedly took back to their rooms was still under investigation, the American officials said, with more than one establishment under review.

“The 11 agents are having different recollections about what happened, or are not telling the truth,” Mr. King said.

The 11 individuals were part of a much larger Secret Service contingent of dozens supporting Mr. Obama’s visit. The agents arrived in Colombia on Tuesday or Wednesday and, according to Mr. King and a senior United States official, had not yet been briefed on their specific assignments or started their official duties when they went out on Wednesday night and met the women.

The president arrived in Cartagena on Friday afternoon for the Summit of the Americas, which drew leaders from throughout Latin America.

The number of military personnel under scrutiny in the case, which the Pentagon initially numbered at 5, is between 10 and 12, the officials said. At least one member of the military has been questioned and cleared of wrongdoing, the officials said. It was not believed that the Secret Service agents and the military personnel had gone out in one large party, officials said, indicating that there may have been two or more groups of Americans who went out that night.

At the Ligueros Club, when new customers arrive, a bell rings on a back patio where women go to relax, prompting them to jump to their high-heeled feet and go back to work. At Pleyclub, another bordello popular among Americans and rumored to have hosted a group of American security personnel on a recent night, a bottle of Old Parr whisky costs $160, and the women, who pole-dance naked on a stage to the rapid-fire beat of reggaetón, can charge double that.

“A lot of Americans come here,” said Carlos Ramírez, a manager at Pleyclub.

Then there is Rocio’s House, a brothel that caters to men from the nearby port. Prostitutes in tight dresses sit almost demurely in plastic chairs there, lined up against a wall like shy students at a junior high dance.

The city’s prostitutes, many using English-friendly names like Lady, Daisy and Paola, say all the international attention might be good for business. They shrug their shoulders at all the fuss.

“Now we are world-class, with the president’s bodyguards coming to try out Colombian girls,” said one freelance prostitute who walks the streets of the walled city and came to Cartagena from her hometown, Cali, because she preferred well-heeled foreign clients.

While a Tracy Chapman video played on a flat-screen television next to the bar at Angeles, another club, another prostitute explained how she and her co-workers were required to be tested for AIDS as often as once a week. The brothels insist that all clients use condoms, she said, describing how she paid the brothel owner about $6 a day to rent a tiny room and preferred to call herself an escort or a companion rather than a prostitute.

The behavior of the security personnel came to light because one of them got into an early morning altercation over payment with one of the women, the American security officials said.

“There are different versions of what happened, but the latest version is that one of the women complained at 6 in the morning that she hadn’t been paid,” Mr. King said. “The Secret Service wouldn’t let the hotel manager into the room, and the police came.”

A taxi driver on Tuesday provided a slightly different version of events than the one that has emerged so far from the American investigation.

The driver, José Peña, 43, said in an interview that he drove two women home from the hotel at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

They told him they had met a group of five Americans the previous night at a club, Tu Candela. They said the Americans invited them back to their hotel at 4 a.m.

In the morning, one of the men refused to pay the $250 he was asked for in exchange for the previous night’s sex with one of the women and instead handed over the equivalent of about $30 in local currency and shut her out of the room, the driver recounted. The woman and her friend banged on the door, they told the driver, until other Americans came out of their rooms and gave the women $100, and the women left.

Carlos Figueroa, a spokesman for the Cartagena mayor’s office, said that the local police were assisting their American counterparts, but not conducting their own investigation. Ms. Collins said she pressed the Secret Service to find out who the women were and whether they had ties to groups hostile to the United States.

Ms. Collins said she had asked of the Secret Service, “Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons,” or in other ways “jeopardized security of the president or our country? Is there any evidence of previous misconduct by these or any other agents on other missions?”

William Neuman reported from Cartagena, and Michael S. Schmidt from Washington. Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Jenny Carolina González from Bogotá, Colombia.