Farmer Column: Prostitutes? In Cartagena? Am I shocked?
Remember that memorable scene in “Casablanca” where the police inspector (Claude Rains) pretends to be shocked when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) tells him that people are actually gambling in the backroom of his nightclub? Well, I’m reminded of that classic movie scene as I follow media coverage of the Cartagena, Colombia, prostitution scandal involving 11 members of President Obama’s Secret Service detail and 10 American servicemen. I’m shocked! (but not really).
Cartagena is a beautiful and historic port city on the north coast of Colombia but, like most port cities, it also has a lively red light district. I made several business trips to Cartagena while serving at the U.S. Embassy in the capital city, Bogota, more than 30 years ago. We – the U.S. Information Service – maintained a thriving library and cultural center in Cartagena, and we tried to show the flag as often as possible.
So with that background, let’s examine what happened in Cartagena last month when a group of American Secret Service agents and servicemen in Obama’s advance party visited a local brothel and returned to their five-star hotel accompanied by as many as 20 prostitutes. It must have been quite a party; however, when several of the “escorts” still were there the following morning, hotel employees went to their rooms and found one of them arguing loudly over money with a Secret Service agent.
Local police were called and our Embassy was notified about the disturbance. All of the lusty security agents and servicemen were immediately sent back to the States for disciplinary action and Congress opened an investigation. Both the Secret Service and the Pentagon emphasized that President Obama’s safety was never in jeopardy as he attended a Latin American Summit in Cartagena.
I’m not surprised by this incident for two main reasons: (1) I witnessed plenty of official hanky panky during my three-year tour of duty in Colombia, and (2) presidential advance parties are way too large; the more young Americans we send into other countries, the more likely it is that some of them will misbehave.
Speaking of official hanky panky, I still recall the California congressman who wanted to know where the nearest brothel was as soon as his plane landed in Bogota, and I’ll never forget a weird weekend visit to the lovely colonial town of Villa de Leiva with a former congressman who was serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS). The ambassador proceeded to drink himself into a stupor while his wife tried to pick up local boys at a nightclub. I’ll spare you the gory details.
Presidential advance parties for foreign visits are huge, comprised of several airplanes containing hundreds of security agents, communicators, office personnel, PR people and assorted strap-hangers. White House advance people often try to take over the host country’s infrastructure, issuing orders and strutting around like conquering heroes. After wheels-up, Embassy staffers remain on the ground to clean up the mess. That’s how it was in Cartagena last month when the Secret Service came to town. Shocked? Not much.
• Guy W. Farmer spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service.