When President Barack Obama's Secret Service advance team was sent home this month for partying with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, the promo team at Spirit Airlines sprang into action. To sell its low-cost flights to Cartagena, Spirit unveiled a tasteless Internet ad depicting a Secret Service agent, with requisite dark glasses and earpiece, accompanied by five bikini-clad women under the headline, "More bang for your buck."
Colombians failed to see the humor. Sergio Díaz-Granados, the Commerce, Industry and Tourism Minister, demanded that Spirit take down the ad (it did). The Colombian Association of Travel Agents scolded the carrier, which is based in Miramar, Fla., for promoting Cartagena a colonial gem and U.N. World Heritage site as a paradise for sexual tourism. Or as Luis Ernesto Araujo, president of the Cartagena Tourist Corporation, told TIME, "That is not the brand statement we want to have out there."
Indeed, at enormous cost in blood and treasure, Colombia over the past decade has transformed itself from a guerrilla stronghold and drug-cartel hell to a relatively safe haven for foreign investment and tourism. Cities like Bogotá and Medellín have undergone spectacular revivals, while Cartagena with its 18th century fortifications, monasteries turned luxury hotels and influx of celebrities and international conferences has become Colombia's international calling card.
But one of the most high-profile events ever held in Cartagena, April's Summit of the Americas, which brought together more than 30 heads of state, was overshadowed when a reported argument between a prostitute and a Secret Service agent unwilling to pay her $800 fee allegedly spilled into the hallways of the Hotel Caribe and escalated into Prosti-Gate. During an appearance on Tuesday on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Obama described the offending agents as "a couple of knuckleheads." Six Secret Service employees left the agency last week, five are on leave and one has been cleared of wrongdoing. A dozen members of the U.S. military are also being investigated for misconduct by the Pentagon. "What they were thinking, I don't know," Obama said. "That's why they're not there anymore."
But thanks to the so-called knuckleheads, Cartagena has been recast in the media as an anything-goes playground for gringos, like pre-Castro Havana. "It makes me very sad," lamented Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín. City hall spokesman Carlos Figueroa complained about the flood of journalists (including this one) who ignored the summit but descended on Cartagena in the wake of the scandal. He blamed electoral politics in the U.S., where Republicans are painting Obama as a bumbling government manager. "We are caught in the middle of a fight between Democrats and Republicans," Figueroa said. "But they are destroying the good image of a city."
Still, there's no denying that besides hammocks and emerald jewelry, sex is a big seller in Cartagena. Though not technically legal, prostitution is widely tolerated in Colombia, and because Cartagena is the country's top tourist destination, the city is a magnate for call girls from all over the country. They range from street walkers who charge as little as $15 to so-called prepagos high-priced courtesans who can be contacted through the Internet and require advance payment for private encounters.
According to Edgar Acuña, a professor at the University of San Buenaventura in Cartagena who has studied the local sex business, at least 2% of the city's female college students voluntarily engage in prostitution to earn extra money, and many work as prepagos. "Our girls are responsible and discreet," said a self-described gigolo named Fabio who works for one prepay escort service called Prepagos 1000, whose women charge on average between $150 and $400 for 90 minutes. "If the Secret Service had called our agency, there never would have been a problem."
At Isis, a nightclub just inside the city walls, a prostitute who called herself Carolina said she moved here from central Colombia three months ago and earns enough to support her two children. As she sipped a pink cocktail, Carolina recalled how police recently swarmed the club looking for a woman identified by local papers (and in the U.S. by the New York Daily News) as Dania Suárez, supposedly the 24-year-old single mother and part-time hooker who clashed with the Secret Service agent over payment. As pole dancers gyrated and stripped to booming techno music, she smiled and said business had returned to normal. "Everyone makes a profit: the hotels, the taxi drivers, the restaurants, the bars, the girls and their families," said Michael Narvaez, a Cartagena journalist. "So no one complains."
Yet the sex business is hardly benign, because it often involves illegal drugs, the trafficking of humans and child prostitution. According to Bogotá think tank Insight, which researches crime in Latin America, there are some 35,000 sexually exploited minors in Colombia. Figueroa says several hundred sex crimes involving children are denounced every year in Cartagena. The most emblematic case involved an Italian pedophile who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2010 for possession of pornography and having sex with a minor. The case came to light after a 14-year-old boy died of a cocaine overdose in the man's Cartagena apartment.
"Sexual tourism damages people," said Mayerlin Vergara, coordinator of the Cartagena branch of Fundación Renacer, an NGO that provides counseling and shelter for underage victims of sexual abuse and prostitution. "It violates the dignity of our people and our country. There ought to be campaigns that teach foreign men to respect Latin American women and not to treat them as sex objects." In an effort to combat child prostitution, Cartagena officials have been holding seminars and training hotel and restaurant staff and taxi drivers to be on the lookout and denounce the crime.
But when it comes to consenting adults, many Colombians have no quarrel with prostitution. In fact, their outrage over the Spirit Airlines ad has given way to jokes about the Secret Service fiasco. For example, there's the one about France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi angling for invites to Colombia's next summit. María Isabel Rueda, a columnist for El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily newspaper, provided another take. She wrote that the American agent's refusal to pay full price to a Colombian prostitute was proof that a long delayed free-trade pact to lower tariffs between the two countries had finally gone into effect.