The rage and surprise expressed by reporters and commentators in Washington and Bogota last Thursday at the official report that U.S. government agents partied hard with prostitutes in Colombia reminded me most of Inspector Renault in the classic film "Casablanca."
When Bogart’s character, café owner Rick, asks the inspector, a morally ambiguous character, why he’s shutting down Rick’s Cafe, the inspector says, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” as he is pocketing his winnings for the night.
I don’t mean to suggest that the critics ever used the services of the ladies of the night, but to point out that prostitution in Colombia is as much a surprise as the palm trees and fabulous beaches.
Sex scandals in America are a guilty pleasure only when a social conservative or liberal preachy type gets busted in flagrante delicto. Otherwise I’m libertarian. So obviously are Secret Service and DEA management, otherwise how can the lenient sentences meted out to the agents embroiled in these latest Colombian sex scandals be explained? They’re all still working.
Anybody who has ever been to the lovely Spanish Colonial-era port cities of Barranquilla or Cartegena knows they have Red Light Districts that are well established and with take-out a service associated with all important hotels. Like Bangkok, Thailand; Rotterdam, Holland; or Sparks, Nevada, sex tourism is one of the mainstays of the local economy.
With the exception of two counties in Nevada, including Sparks, prostitution is criminalized in the United States. But the world’s oldest profession is legal, organized, semi-regulated, widespread and hugely tolerated in Latin America.
Unless you are doing business, on a tour, a cruise, an archeologist or a mercenary bent on fighting with or against FARC, if you are a man visiting one of those two Colombian ports without your spouse, you are going there for the action. To think that red-blooded American secret agents freed from the shackles of our puritan society would likewise indulge in a widely accepted practice while far from home is not shocking.
Yet given the chance to moralize about the DEA agents and the Secret Service agents recently snagged, many locals became like Casablanca’s Inspector Renault: hypocritically outraged.
I asked my friend Steve Salisbury, a veteran Colombian-based Latin American expert, to test the local reaction to the latest sex scandal.
Steve reports, “Yes, the just recently reported episode of another DEA sex scandal in Colombia, citing evident misbehavior or allegedly worse from several years ago is causing a big buzz here in Colombia. People think it is outrageous that members of the DEA are caught yet again in what appears to be such unprofessional, "shameful," or even possibly criminal actions. One Colombian woman told me: 'This is terrible and very disgusting!'
"People are indignant about this, and questions include: 'Who do they [the DEA members implicated in the alleged misbehavior] think they are? Do they think they are above the law and can lord it over everyone? Don't these DEA people ever learn? Are these kinds of things and shenanigans still going on, and if so, to what degree? What is being done to put in tight control and put a stop to such things?'”
A retired Western high-ranking official who prefers to remain anonymous told Steve, “Sometimes you wonder who, exactly, is the adult supervision in the U.S. (government)!" On that point at least, I agree. How dumb can a married, secret agent be to hire a hooker and then refuse to pay her the agreed price?
Sex scandals in America are a guilty pleasure only when a social conservative or liberal preachy type gets busted in flagrante delicto. Otherwise, I’m libertarian. Obviously so are Secret Service and DEA management — otherwise, how can the lenient sentences meted out to the agents embroiled in these latest Colombian sex scandals be explained? They’re all still working.
The only real problem is: Who paid for the ladies?
Back to Steve Salisbury’s exclusive reporting.
“If it were true that the implicated DEA agents were allegedly receiving gifts from a drug-kingpin's lawyer and using illegal drugs with prostitutes … then that would appear to raise highly serious judicial questions.”
In other words, if the potential targets of their work as law enforcement agents had compromised the agents’ integrity by getting them hookers and cocaine, then that is a big deal.
Paying for sex in Cartegena and Barranquilla is not.
You can compare awareness of the scope of the Colombian sex industry to another pop cultural reference, the Geico Gecko talking about “Fifteen minutes saving you fifteen percent or more in car insurance … Everybody knows that.”