Legal Prostitution in Colombia Yields Political Scandal for US Secret Service

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President Obama with Secret Service agents
President Barack Obama with Secret Service agents
Source: “US President Barack Obama Secret Service Agents Sent Home from Colombia Over Prostitute Misconduct Allegations,” HeraldSun.com.au, Apr. 15, 2012

Prostitution is legal in Colombia, though restricted to designated “tolerance zones.” Coastal city Cartagena is home to several brothels that operate within such zones, including Corporación Pley Club, where at least 11 US Secret Service members and up to 10 US military personnel allegedly brought 20 or more prostitutes back to their hotel rooms on Apr. 11, 2012.

The controversy became public after a dispute broke out between a Secret Service agent and a prostitute at the Hotel Caribe the following morning. The prostitute was demanding an additional $170 for her services, on top of the $60 paid by the agent to the owner of the Pley Club the previous night.

The agents and officers “didn’t break any laws,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) on Apr. 16. They did, however, potentially “expose themselves to blackmail,” added Issa, who suggested this may not have been an isolated incident.

The Secret Service detail was in Colombia preparing for President Barack Obama‘s arrival at the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders. Two of the personnel were senior Secret Service officials, according to the Washington Post. CBS News reported on Apr. 18 that the agency plans to run lie detector (polygraph) tests on the agents involved.

Though venues such as the Pley Club operate legally, the US Department of State considers Colombia to be “a major source country for women and girls subjected to trafficking in persons… [and] a destination for foreign child sex tourists, particularly coastal cities such as Cartagena and Barranquilla.”

Prostitution is illegal in the US, with the exception of 11 Nevada counties, though studies have shown that up to 20% of American men admit to having paid for sex at least once in their lives.

In a guest op-ed for WashingtonPost.com on Apr. 15, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite wrote that although Colombia’s prostitution industry is legal, the agents’ behavior is unacceptable on moral grounds: “To travel to a foreign country and pay money to use someone else’s body for sex is profoundly immoral. To offer a human body for sale as a form of tourism is deeply, deeply corrupt…”

Some were less alarmed by the agents’ actions. Dan Emmett, a 21-year Secret Service veteran, said Issa’s fears of blackmail attempts were “espionage novel stuff.” Noting that prostitution was legal in Colombia, he added, “this is not a criminal conduct type of situation, it’s strictly personal conduct… Secret Service agents [are] held to a higher standard than the average American would be that’s down in Colombia on vacation.”

President Barack Obama addressed the growing scandal on Apr. 15, ordering a “thorough” and “rigorous” investigation. “If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I’ll be angry,” Obama added.

Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said on Apr. 18 that as President he would “clean house” at the Secret Service in light of these events, firing those who put “their personal play time” ahead of their responsibility to the nation.


Sources:

David S. Cloud and Kathleen Hennessey, “Pentagon Investigating 10 Military Members in Colombia Scandal,” LATimes.com, Apr. 16, 2012

Devin Dwyer, “Secret Service Veteran Dismisses ‘Blackmail’ Concerns in Colombia Scandal,” ABCNews.go.com, Apr. 15, 2012

“Issa on Secret Service Scandal – Did Not Break the Law,” WCVBTV-ABC Boston, Apr. 16, 2012

“New Details Emerge in Secret Service Probe,” WSJ.com, Apr. 17, 2012

Norah O’Donnell, “Secret Service Agents in Sex Scandal May Take Lie Detector Tests,” CBSNews.com, Apr. 18, 2012

Ed O’Keefe and David Nakamura, “Secret Service, Military Personnel Brought as Many as 21 Prostitutes to Colombia Hotel, Investigators Say,” WashingtonPost.com, Apr. 17, 2012

“Romney Says He’d ‘Clean House’ to Remove Secret Service Agents Involved with Prostitutes,” Associated Press/WashingtonPost.com, Apr. 18, 2012

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “Secret Service Scandal Sheds Light on the International Sex Industry,” WashingtonPost.com, Apr. 15, 2012

US Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report 2010 – Country Narratives: Countries A Through F,” State.gov, 2010

Scott Wilson, “Secret Service Scandal Probe Engulfs Pentagon,” USAToday.com, Apr. 16, 2012