A Colombian state agency will launch an investigation into the Secret Service prostitution scandal to determine whether underage prostitutes were involved, the Colombian press reports.
The head of Colombia’s Institute for Family Wellbeing, María Rosario Blanco, told Colombian daily El Tiempo the agency will probe the matter, though authorities have not received any formal complaints that Americans contracted underage prostitutes.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that none of the women involved in allegations of prostitution were minors.
Prostitution is legal in designated areas in Colombia, including parts of the Caribbean city of Cartagena.
But the combination of widespread poverty plaguing the area, legal prostitution and Cartagena’s status as an international tourist destination make Cartagena fertile ground for “sex tourism.” Authorities have long been concerned about the related problem of child prostitution.
Sex workers in Cartagena have banded together to keep children out of the industry by refusing to locate underage prostitutes for potential clients and enlisting the city’s taxi drivers, waiters and hotel workers—who often play the role of fixer—to refuse as well.
The project, “I am the Wall,” a reference to the colonial-era walls that surround the city of Cartagena, is supported by nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“Unfortunately, tourists arrive here with money and they’re allowed to do anything,” a Cartagena prostitute and participant in the project who identified herself as Damaris told Agence France Presse last summer. “What I’m asking is to impose limits. When they ask for kids for sex, don’t give them information. Remember that they’re kids and that they, like your children, are worth more than any tip.”
Nevertheless, child prostitution remains a problem. Colombia’s Institute for Family Wellbeing estimates some 35,000 of the country’s children are pushed into prostitution, including an estimated 2,000 in the city of Cartagena.
The State Department identifies Colombia as a destination for foreign child sex tourists from the United States and Europe in its 2011 Report on Human Trafficking.
The growing Secret Service sex scandal has become an election-year embarrassment for Obama, who has said he would be angry if the allegations proved to be true. The White House said Obama had confidence the Secret Service chief would thoroughly look into the matter.
"Director Sullivan acted quickly in response to this incident and is overseeing an investigation as we speak into the matter," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Last Thursday, 11 Secret Service agents were recalled to the U.S. from Colombia and placed on administrative leave after a night of partying that allegedly ended with at least some bringing prostitutes back to their hotel. On Monday, the agency announced that it also had revoked the agents' security clearance.
At least 10 U.S. military personnel staying at the same hotel were also being investigated for their role in the alleged misconduct.
Two U.S. military officials said they include five Army Green Berets. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity about an investigation that is still under way.
One of the officials said the group also includes two Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers and an Air Force airman. The Special Forces Green Berets were working with Colombia's counter-terrorist teams, the official said.
The agents and servicemen were in Colombia setting up security ahead of Obama's three-day trip to the port city of Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas, which was attended by about 30 other world leaders.
People briefed on the incident said the agents brought women back to Cartagena's Hotel Caribe, where other members of the U.S. delegation and the White House corps also were staying.
Anyone visiting the hotel overnight was required to leave identification at the front desk and leave the hotel by 7 a.m. When a woman allegedly failed to do so, it raised questions among hotel staff and police, who investigated. They found the woman with the agent in a hotel room and a dispute arose over whether the agent should have paid her.
While the identities of those being investigated have not been revealed, Maryland Republican Senate candidate Daniel Bongino told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his brother, an agent who was on duty in Colombia, is "cooperating" with the investigation. Bongino, a former agent himself, insisted his brother was not a target of the investigation.
The Secret Service has insisted Obama's security was not undermined by the incident, which happened before he arrived in Colombia.
Contains reporting from the Associated Press