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Letter from Colombia: Cartagena's last laugh

Colombians are laughing on the outside at the US Secret Service prostitute scandal.

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Independence Beauty Peagent in Cartagena, Colombia, Nov. 11, 2010. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)

CARTAGENA, Colombia — The American Secret Service really is the best in the world — they found all the prostitutes that the Colombians were hiding from a visiting Barack Obama.

That’s just one of the jokes Colombians have been making about the scandal of Secret Service agents currently being investigated for allegedly cavorting with prostitutes in the city of Cartagena last week.

The agents were there ahead of Obama’s arrival in the Summit of the Americas in the colonial port city on the Caribbean.

Many here have giggled at each new development, reveling in the powerful “gringos” brought down a peg or two. Twitter groaned under the weight of jokes about sex summits, and the hashtag #serviciosexcreto was created.

Quarreling in public with a prostitute over money seemed so far from James Bond, the jokes were inevitable.

Under the title “Cartageneros can’t stop making jokes about the news,” the tabloid Al Dia reported that locals had labeled the expelled agents Obama's "12 Apostles" — stretching the number of agents (11) in the Secret Service fiasco slightly to fit the joke.

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The article further said that the owner of a brothel, where witnesses say the agents picked up the prostitutes, had phoned the police after five journalists “who looked like ‘gringos’” wouldn’t stop banging on his establishment’s door.

Such a scrum by the US media was guaranteed once the incident was widely reported to be called “the biggest scandal in the history of the Secret Service” by an expert on the agency.

Organizers of the summit, which brought together around 30 heads of state from across the Americas, were dismayed as American reporters turned their back on weighty issues such as the drug war, relations with Cuba and poverty and inequality in Latin America, to go looking for interviews with the prostitutes in question.

The scandal couldn’t have come at a worse time for a country trying to present a new image to the world — something beyond drug-traffickers, endless guerrilla wars and hookers. President Juan Manual Santos had just graced the cover of Time magazine with a long story on the country’s comeback.

"The inappropriate conduct of the Americans has overshadowed us a little," Cartagena Interior Minister Nausicrate Perez told CNN. "But we are sure that we will transcend this, because Cartagena is much more. It is a beautiful, calm city, a historic city that showed the world its security and tranquility."

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The Summit of the Americas itself was to show off to the international community a new confident Colombia, rather than the basket case of old. Ahead of the summit, local authorities tried to clean up Cartagena’s charming chaos, hiding the homeless, stray dogs and street vendors. And the prostitutes.

A sanitized Cartagena was presented to the region’s leaders. Much of the Colombian media happily went along with this plan.

Television presenters congratulated the government on its successful managing of the summit.

With the local media cooing over the presidents’ arrival to the “red carpet,” it felt closer to E! Television live coverage of the Oscars.

Others joked that the event was broadcast like the country’s annual beauty contest — also held in Cartagena – and wondered when the swimsuit event would take place.

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But many Colombians feared that the prostitutes scandal, or "Hookergate" as it was predictably called, would compound the world’s unfair image of the country.

That seemed confirmed Tuesday when Caracol radio ran an interview with a particularly sleazy US tour operator who organizes trips to Cartagena for Americans to sleep with Colombian prostitutes. In the interview, he said that the day after the scandal broke, he received 22 emails inquiring about traveling to Cartagena.

Prostitution is mostly legal in Colombia, although there are laws against pimps and encouraging women to become sex workers. Like other destinations in the Caribbean, Cartagena has its fair share of brothels and tourists looking for prostitutes.

An employee of Colombian government's tourism promoter on Tuesday tweeted: "Thanks to the Secret Service for their kind promotion of [Cartagena] #fail"

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/colombia/120417/cartagena-surviving-secret-service-prostitute-scandal