Global Politics

Cartagena residents complain citys getting a bad rap for prostitutes

Cartagena_2C_Bol_C3_ADvar_2C_Colombia_685732719.jpeg

Cartagena, in Colombia, is known as an historic and beautiful colonial city. But its beauty and tourist appeal is being overshadowed by the Secret Service prostitution scandal. (Photo by Daviddavid00 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Residents of the Colombian city of Cartagena are complaining that the international media have branded their city as a playground for promiscuity.

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Cartagena hosted President Barack Obama and other heads of state at the Summit of the Americas last month. It was overshadowed by a scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents caught partying with local prostitutes.

Cartagena, a colonial gem, was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations. The city center, which is nearly always packed with tourists, is surrounded by 18th Century stone walls. 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 fee. The resulting scandal led 11 Secret Service agents to leave the force, either voluntarily or otherwise. It also signaled 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 spokeswoman, points out that that prostitution exists in every part of the world.

“It’s not like a big deal," she said. "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," she said.

Still, prostitution is legal in Colombia, and after dark, sex is openly on sale in Cartagena.

One night, a street hustler offered a trip to the Play Club bordello, which he claimed is home to the finest women in town.

On a seemingly more sedate tour of the city aboard a horse-drawn carriage, the driver made a similar offer.

He mentioned “ladies and beer”, and said, “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, Araujo said.

“This is not what we are looking for," he said. "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.”

Cartagena hosted President Barack Obama and other heads of state at the Summit of the Americas last month. It was overshadowed by a scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents caught partying with local prostitutes.

Cartagena, a colonial gem, was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations. The city center, which is nearly always packed with tourists, is surrounded by 18th Century stone walls. 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 fee. The resulting scandal led 11 Secret Service agents to leave the force, either voluntarily or otherwise. It also signaled 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 spokeswoman, points out that that prostitution exists in every part of the world.

“It’s not like a big deal," she said. "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," she said.

Still, prostitution is legal in Colombia, and after dark, sex is openly on sale in Cartagena.

One night, a street hustler offered a trip to the Play Club bordello, which he claimed is home to the finest women in town.

On a seemingly more sedate tour of the city aboard a horse-drawn carriage, the driver made a similar offer.

He mentioned “ladies and beer”, and said, “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, Araujo said.

“This is not what we are looking for," he said. "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.”

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