Earlier this month, the Colombian city of Cartagena hosted President Obama and other heads of state at the Summit of the Americas. But that event was overshadowed by a scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents caught partying with local prostitutes.
Now, people in Cartagena are now complaining that the international media have branded their city as a playground for promiscuity.
Cartagena, a colonial gem, has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations. Eighteenth-century stone walls surround the city center, which is nearly always packed with tourists. Massive monasteries have been converted into luxury hotels.
Cartagena embodies Colombia’s transformation over the past decade from a guerrilla and drug cartel stronghold to a hotspot for foreign investment and tourism.
“This is a city that’s known for being a World Heritage site,” said Luis Araujo, president of the Cartagena tourist board. “It is known for its architecture, and for its history for giving support to Simon Bolivar’s revolution for independence. So there are lots of things that make Cartagena unique.”
But two days before President Obama arrived in Cartagena for the summit, a Secret Service advance man got into a noisy argument with a prostitute over her $800 fee. The resulting scandal led to the dismissal of 11 Secret Service agents – and the arrival of the media hordes.
Now, city officials claim Cartagena is being portrayed as a kind of pre-Castro Havana where anything goes. The Washington Post described the city as “swimming in prostitutes.” Spirit Airlines began selling flights to Cartagena with Internet ads depicting a Secret Service agent carousing with bikini-clad women. The ad’s slogan was: “More bang for your buck.”
Victoria Escobar, a city hall spokeswoman, points out that that prostitution exists in every part of the world. “So it’s not like a big deal. But now it’s like, Cartagena, sex city, touristic sex city. We think it’s very wrong.”
Escobar said electoral politics in the United States are driving the scandal, as Republicans paint President Obama as a bumbling government manager.
“In the middle of this campaign, they are using us. They don’t want Obama to be reelected. So we feel really bad about that.”
Still, prostitution is legal in Colombia, and after dark, sex is openly on sale in Cartagena.
When I went out one night, a street hustler offered to bring me to the Play Club bordello, which he claimed is home to the finest women in town.
I opted instead for a more sedate tour of the city aboard a horse-drawn carriage. But I immediately received a similar offer from the driver.
He mentioned “ladies and beer”, and told me, “It’s very, very secure.”
Because Cartagena is Colombia’s top tourist attraction, it also draws prostitutes from all over the country. Maria Avila, who arrived here from the Pacific coast 17 years ago, said about half her customers are foreigners.
“The gringos like to be with prostitutes,” she said. “They like sex and drugs. They come here to go crazy.”
But there are many dark sides to the sex business. It often involves illegal drugs, human trafficking and child prostitution. Last year, Cartagena authorities received about 400 reports of sex crimes involving children.
“Sexual tourism degrades Colombia and its women,” said Mayerlin Vergara, who directs a city shelter for sexually abused adolescents and child prostitutes.
She said others warn that if the business becomes too big – as it has in some areas of Thailand – it could scare away more lucrative family and adventure tourism. That’s why foreigners in search of prostitutes should skip Cartagena, said Araujo of the tourist board.
“Make that clear to people who might be listening to your show: This is not what we are looking for. This is not the brand statement we want to have out there. It is very unfortunate that this has happened but it points to an issue that we have to tackle together.”