Surrounded by wall-mounted flat screens playing continuous deafening music videos, male patrons at La Dolce Vita nightclub face rows of young women in high heels and miniskirts sitting or standing by the bar, some swaying to the salsa songs.
The women generally do not approach the men sitting at tables in the middle of the dark room, but occasionally one of the men stands up and asks one or more of the women to join him.
Then they order drinks and discuss business. Vicky, a 20-year-old clad in a mini-dress with large polka dots, offered sex for $120 per hour at a man’s hotel.
Hundreds of similar offers occur every night at dozens of nightclubs in this international resort on Colombia’s Caribbean coast 409 miles northwest of Bogotá, the capital. But La Dolce Vita, at the corner of First Street and Adm. Brión Avenue, sits one block from the Hotel Caribe, the epicenter of a mushrooming prostitution scandal involving 12 U.S. Secret Service agents and 11 members of the U.S. armed forces.
Previously 10 armed forces personnel were said to be involved, but on Friday a U.S. Southern Command spokesman in Miami said 11 military men were being investigated: six from the Army, two from the U.S. Marine Corps, two from the Navy and one from the Air Force.
The military men and the Secret Service agents were part of advance teams to prepare President Barack Obama’s visit to attend the Summit of the Americas April 14.
Dania Suárez, a 24-year-old single mother, helped trigger the scandal when she complained loudly in a hallway of the Hotel Caribe early on April 12 that a Secret Service agent staying there failed to pay her the $800 sex fee. He only offered $30.
While Vicky and other women said early Saturday that the Americans did not pick up women at La Dolce Vita, they defended Suárez because prostitution is a legal way to make a living for young women who work day jobs in offices and stores or attend school.
Two percent of young female college students in Cartagena moonlight as escorts and prostitutes, according to a study from the University of San Buenaventura quoted in Friday’s edition of the Cartagena newspaper El Universal, which also published pictures of Suárez in a bikini.
Though many here fear the scandal may further tarnish Colombia’s image, one unifying strand in the local fallout of the sordid scandal was that many Cartageneros, as local residents are known in Spanish, view the agent as the villain for trying to stiff a young woman who is only seeking to feed her 9-year-old son.
“This is all legal,” said Vicky, the only one of the women at La Dolce Vita willing to talk at length. “This was the fault of the man who didn’t pay.”
Her view was echoed by more than a dozen other local residents interviewed on the streets of Cartagena Saturday as the city continues to reel from the scandal.
“The women were just trying to make a living,” said Melissa Frasser, a bank manager from Bogotá who talked while sipping a drink and sunning herself on a beach across from the Hotel Caribe. Frasser was here for the weekend.
In the end, she added, the more “negative impact will be on the reputation of the Secret Service, not Cartagena, since prostitution happens everywhere.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing elements in the incident the morning Suárez complained was that one or more Cartagena police officers who responded to the hotel interceded on her behalf to elicit payment.
A police officer interviewed Saturday at a police substation across from the hotel, from where responding officers likely came, said he doubted the officers’ priority that morning was to help the woman get paid.
“I believe the officers were trying to defuse the situation,” said the policeman, who asked that his name not be published because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. “If he tried to get the man to pay that was because he saw payment as a requirement to control the situation, not because as a policy we help prostitutes get paid. That is between them and the clients.”
Beyond whether Suárez should have been paid, Cartageneros had varied opinions on the scandal’s impact. The consensus was that the scandal is bad because it may add another stain to Colombia’s reputation as a drug-trafficking and criminal hub.
“Now tourists will have more fears,” said Elizabeth Sandoval, 32, a worker in a shopping mall where La Dolce Vita is located.
Marcela Romero, 27, who runs a small Internet café near La Dolce Vita, said her main fear was that from now on foreign tourists will equate Colombian women with prostitutes.
“I have a friend who is a nurse and she is dating a man who lives in Alaska,” said Romero. “She told me Friday that she now fears that her boyfriend may change his mind about her because of the scandal.”
She also recounted how during a taxi ride one day last week, the driver complained when he saw a Colombian woman walking alongside a tall, blonde man.
“He said, ‘If I see my daughter with a foreigner I will disown her,’ and I said to myself, ‘Wow, nothing like that was said here before the scandal.’”
Within Cartagena’s colonial section, hordes of foreign tourists took in the sights Saturday led by tour guides. Some stood in front of the Tu Candela at Plaza de los Coches taking pictures of the nightclub whose name has been mentioned in connection with the scandal.
Among the tourists Saturday was a couple from New York, Rob Coppersmith and Mary Manaker, who had booked their vacation trip before the scandal broke.
“Before the scandal, many of our friends had trouble locating where we were going,” said Manaker. “But now people have no trouble understanding where Cartagena is and who was involved.”
On a beach near the colonial section, Gregorio Caraballo, 62, who rents umbrellas and chairs to beachgoers, hoped the scandal will eventually fade.
“People should look beyond what happened and see that Cartagena has an old history and is a city that by and large is peaceful and healthy.”
(Chardy reports for the Miami Herald.)