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10 Things Everyone Should Know About The Secret Service Prostitution Scandal

New details have emerged about the allegation that Secret Service agents paid for (or in some cases failed to pay for) prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia. Here’s what we know so far.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

A Secret Service agent in DC.

1. Eleven Secret Service members and 10 military personnel are accused of bringing up to 21 women back to their hotel in Cartagena.

That would be the Hotel Caribe, on the night of Wednesday, April 11 — three days prior to President Obama delivered remarks at the Summit of the Americas. It’s unclear whether all of the women were prostitutes, but at least one self-identifies as an escort (more on that in a minute). The members of the military involved include two dog handlers, a Green Beret, and several explosives experts.

2. Three Secret Service members have already left over the scandal.

One was fired, another forced to resign, and a third has retired. Two of them were supervisors.

Fernando Llano / AP

Secret Service agents in Cartagena.

3. There’s no evidence of a national security breach.

Secret Service officials say the men under investigation didn’t have weapons, schedules, or other “sensitive material” in their rooms where the women could see them, and they weren’t part of the detail that guards the President. Also, one of the women says, “They never told me they were with Obama. They were very discreet.”

4. One of the women says she’s an escort, not a prostitute.

She explained to the Times that “an escort is someone who a man can take out to dinner. She can dress nicely, wear nice makeup, speak and act like a lady.” She added that she is more selective and charges more than a streetwalker: “It’s the same, but it’s different. It’s like when you buy a fine rum or a BlackBerry or an iPhone. They have a different price.”

There may have been some confusion about this, though. Some Secret Service members are claiming they didn’t know the women were prostitutes. And…

5. The whole thing came out when one man tried to underpay.

The escort who spoke to the Times said she and a member of the Secret Service agreed on a price of $800. But in the morning, he offered her $30. They argued, and she ended up talking to a nearby police officer. Eventually hotel security arrived too. She eventually left with $225, but the scandal had been sparked.

STRINGER / Reuters

Prostitutes walking in Cartagena.

6. Prostitution is legal in some parts of Cartagena.

The city contains “tolerance zones”, where prostitution isn’t a crime and many brothels are located. That may be why the escort felt comfortable going to the police when she hadn’t been adequately paid. This is worth remembering from a sex workers’ rights perspective — legalization can help prostitutes get a fair price. Prostitution’s legal status in Cartagena has also made the scandal seem less serious to some — one retired Secret Service member (who wasn’t involved) told the LA Times, “I would be extra-reluctant to engage in that kind of behavior in a country where it was illegal, but should I be in a place where it is legal, such as Germany, or in this case, Colombia, I don’t see the problem.”

STRINGER / Reuters

Prostitutes in Cartagena.

7. Some are claiming the Secret Service members also did cocaine.

An anonymous employee of the Hotel Caribe told the New York Post, “When I went upstairs I walked into a messy room. The room was littered with two whiskey bottles — and a line of white powder, I believed to be cocaine, was on top of a round glass table in the room.” Of course, the Post has a history of printing allegations by anonymous sources that don’t get corroborated. They quoted an anonymous tipster calling Dominique Strauss-Kahn accuser Nafissatou Diallo a prostitute, and Diallo she later sued them. So: grain of salt.

However, money paid to sex workers in Colombia may end up in the hands of current or former drug dealers, since many of them have turned to human trafficking.

STRINGER / Reuters

Prostitutes in front of the Hotel Caribe.

8. One of the ousted Secret Service agents is planning to sue.

A congressional aide told CBS that one of the three has a lawsuit in the works. No more information yet as to what his grounds will be for suing.

9. This could be evidence of a bigger problem.

According to CBS, Congress is now asking whether Secret Service members are habitually partying with prostitutes in other places besides Colombia. Journalist Kiri Blakeley says the scandal stems from a dearth of women in the organization. But Jeffrey Robinson, who’s written a history of the Secret Service, tells CNN that women are an “integral part” of its functioning, and offers this somewhat bizarre description of the things female members have had to do: “They had to ride the big thoroughbred horses the same as the men. Or when they went skiing with Dan Quayle, they had to be able to ski and keep up with him while still wearing the gun and the radio. Physically, it’s tough.” Sounds like it.

STRINGER / Reuters

A prostitute near the Hotel Caribe.

10. But some sex workers think it’s good news.

One Cartagena prostitute (who was not involved) told the Times, “now we are world-class, with the president’s bodyguards coming to try out Colombian girls.”

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