Summit sex scandal takes shine off Colombia efforts

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 15, 2012 3:14 PM
Summit sex scandal takes shine off Colombia efforts

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Gracing the latest cover of Time magazine and trumpeting his nation's security achievements, President Juan Manuel Santos had hoped the Summit of the Americas would showcase the modern face of Colombia.

Yet global headlines from this weekend's gathering of more than 30 heads of state have focused instead on an embarrassing scandal after members of U.S. President Barack Obama's security detail were caught with prostitutes in historic Cartagena.

The murky hotel incident - which has seen 11 Secret Service agents sent home and five servicemen grounded - outraged Colombians proud of their often-vilified country's push to become a major regional player.

"This doesn't damage Colombia's reputation and image, though. It damages the United States' image and shows the impunity with which its security personnel operate overseas," former opposition presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria told Reuters.

U.S. soldiers and contractors backing Colombia in its fight against drug traffickers and Marxist insurgents have in the past been involved in sex scandals in rural areas near army bases.

A largely successful decade-old offensive against the rebels and cocaine cartels has let Colombia begin shedding its global notoriety for violence and crime.

"The Colombian Comeback" was how Time put it, below a black-and-white portrait of Santos on its latest edition. "From nearly failed state to emerging global player - in less than a decade."

"HOW SHAMEFUL"

Headlines over the weekend, however, were less pleasing for the host of the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting.

"The only media coverage of the summit is the scandal of the gringos and the prostitutes," said one Colombian diplomat based in Europe, who asked not to be named. "How shameful."

Details of the saga unfolded just as the heads of state began discussing weighty issues such as trade protectionism, Cuba, and the war on drugs.

"I never thought the summit agenda had much hope of being achieved," said Gaviria. "But it turned into more of a media sideshow, a ridiculous distraction, than a serious political meeting of presidents."

Locals said the Americans had been to a brothel on the outskirts of Cartagena before bringing women back to an upscale beachfront hotel near where Obama was due to stay when he arrived the following day.

Prostitution is legal in "tolerance zones" in Colombia, though also widely practiced outside those areas without sanction. Cartagena residents, who had hoped to project an image of warmth and hospitality to the world, tutted in disapproval.

"The Colombian prostitutes are very beautiful," said Francisco Obeso, 52, who sells trinkets on the streets of the old city. "Those guys fell to temptation."

(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Sandra Maler)