Thursday, April 19, 2012

As Secret Service Investigates Cartagena Case, Sex Worker Speaks Out

The New York Times interviewed a sex worker at the center of the scandal over Obama’s Secret Service agents using prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia.


According to the woman, who describes herself as an escort, she and a friend were approached by the group of Americans in a bar. She said that the agents did not say they were in town with Obama, and that they were “very discreet.”

By the woman’s version of events, she and one agent had agreed a price of $800 for sex, but the next morning he offered her only $30. There was a dispute, and he used foul language and ordered her out of the room, she says. The woman asked a local police officer to help her, and the US man and his colleagues eventually handed over $225 -- less than the amount she says she has to pay a man who helps her find customers.

Three of the 11 Secret Service agents involved in the scandal are leaving the agency -- resigning, being fired, or retiring, reports the NYT. All are on administrative leave. Ten military service personnel in Colombia are also under investigation. The 21 men are thought to have brought 21 women back to the hotel -- some of the men claim they did not know the women were prostitutes.

In their investigations of the incident, the Secret Service are trying to ascertain facts such as whether the men handed over any security information, and whether they had gone out with the intention of finding prostitutes. Senator Charles Grassley said it does not appear that sensitive information was compromised by the women coming back to the hotel.

Obama said Tuesday that he has confidence in Secret Service director Mark Sullivan, who acted quickly in response to the situation.

However, as commentators have pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that the use of prostitutes by the Secret Service in Cartagena was an isolated incident. Senator Susan Collins, of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told Reuters that the service was going through its records for hints of any similar past incidents, and argued that they should look for cases of employees being told off by supervisors, even informally. "Think of all the missions and countries that the Secret Service visits in advance of the president's trips," she said. Senator Charles Grassley told reporters, "My concern is, is this a culture that goes beyond 11 people?"

At Colombia Reports, Adriaan Alsema puts the incident in context of Colombia’s development, noting that the $35 million the country spent on the Summit of the Americas “unfortunately turned out to be a very expensive campaign to promote the country's already-flourishing sex tourism industry.” Instead of showcasing Colombia’s remarkable transformation over the last decade, the summit put the spotlight on the sex business, which he says has “an adverse effect on the development of Colombia's tourism industry, the country's economy as a whole and worse of all the dignity of Colombia's women,” tens of thousands of whom make a living as sex workers. He calls on the government to implement a more effective labor policy, to work break the links between tourism and the sex trade, and provide more programs to help women who want to get out of prostitution.

News Briefs

  • Spain is threatening to retaliate for Argentina’s proposed nationalization of oil and gas company YPF, which is owned by Spanish firm Repsol. This could affect trade, energy and resource relations between the two countries, reports the Wall Street Journal. From Brazil, the NYT’s Simon Romero reports that commentators in that country are perturbed by the news, with one financial expert comparing it to President Juan Peron’s nationalizations in the 1940s and 50s. There are concerns that Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras, which has extensive operations in Argentina, could also be vulnerable to expropriation. Romero reports on mixed responses from across the region, with Chile’s economy minister saying it could hurt investor confidence in Latin America, while Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon also criticized the move. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica, in contrast, both expressed their support. The concerns about investor confidence are backed by a report in the NYT, which says that the move could hit the plans of Spanish companies, many of which have been trying to reassure anxious investors that Latin America will help them stay afloat.
    As context, the WSJ offers a history of state takeovers in Latin America.
  • The AP says that Asian investment in Latin America could be a second gold rush for the region, with Asian investors flooding into “manufacturing, construction and other industries, particularly in up-and-coming countries such as Brazil, Peru and Mexico.”
  • InSight Crime says reports that one of Colombia’s biggest drug traffickers has turned himself in to the US authorities are probably false. Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," heads the Rastrojos gang along with his brother, and the pair have been reported to be negotiating their surrender for some months. Javier Calle Serna is not in US custody, as media have reported, according to InSight Crime’s sources. The website says the rumors might be aimed at causing panic in the Colombian underworld.
  • Rio Real looks at Rio de Janeiro government plans to develop the city’s favelas, investing in public transport, sewage systems, and public health, as well as cutting the territory occupied by the settlements. Julia Michaels says that the culture of the favela has a sense of community and shared space that could be destroyed through the urban integration programs. She says that the “authoritarian style of some aspects of Rio de Janeiro’s transformation inspires distrust,” and that some fear the moves are inspired by the Olympics, not by a drive to improve quality of life in Rio.
  • The Haitian government and UN officials in the country have criticized the storming of the legislature by armed men agitating for the revival of the country’s army, reports the AP.
  • IDL-Reporteros has transcripts of radio conversations between representatives companies working on the Camisea gas pipeline, and Shining Path rebels, who had kidnapped 36 of their workers. The last conversation was on Friday, when the interlocutors decided to switch to communicating by cell phone. IDL-Reporteros notes that the talks apparently continued, and that the next day the hostages were freed. There have been suggestions that the companies paid a ransom, though this has been denied by them and by the government.
  • In Guatemala, the remains of 99 victims of the civil war have been dug up in a military base in the city of Coban, reports the AP.
  • A US citizen was found with 280,000 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle, trying to cross into Mexico from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Police said it was the largest ammo seizure in the city crossing in recent memory, reports the AP.
  • Today, WOLA releases a study on security and migration on the Mexico-US border.
  • A dispute over illegal logging in Cheran, south Mexico, has flared up, with gunmen shooting dead eight local men, reports the Miami Herald.