Summit sex scandal takes shine off Colombia efforts

CARTAGENA, Colombia Sun Apr 15, 2012 3:17pm EDT

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CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - Gracing the cover of the latest Time magazine and trumpeting his nation's security achievements, President Juan Manuel Santos had hoped the Summit of the Americas would showcase the modern face of Colombia.

Yet global media coverage from this weekend's gathering of more than 30 heads of state has focused instead on a scandal after members of U.S. President Barack Obama's security detail were caught with prostitutes in historic Cartagena.

The hotel incident - which has seen 11 Secret Service agents sent home and five servicemen grounded - outraged Colombians proud of their often-vilified country's push to become a major regional player.

"Colombia is not just prostitutes, drugs and violence, it's much more than that," said Maria Fernanda Martinez, 35, a Colombian tourist on vacation in Cartagena. "There are many better things to show the world."

U.S. soldiers and contractors backing Colombia in its fight against drug traffickers and Marxist insurgents have in the past been involved in sex scandals in rural areas near army bases.

A largely successful decade-old offensive against the rebels and cocaine cartels has allowed Colombia to begin shedding its international notoriety for violence and crime.

"The Colombian Comeback" was how Time put it, below a black-and-white portrait of Santos on its latest edition. "From nearly failed state to emerging global player - in less than a decade."

"HOW SHAMEFUL"

Headlines over the weekend, however, were less flattering for the host of the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting.

"The only media coverage of the summit is the scandal of the gringos and the prostitutes," said one Colombian diplomat based in Europe, who asked not to be named. "How shameful."

Details of the saga unfolded just as the heads of state began discussing weighty issues such as trade protectionism, Cuba and the war on drugs.

"I never thought the summit agenda had much hope of being achieved," former opposition presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria told Reuters. "But it turned into more of a media sideshow, a ridiculous distraction, than a serious political meeting of presidents."

The incident unfolded when the Americans brought a number of prostitutes back to a beachfront hotel near where Obama was due to stay when he arrived the following day, a local police source said.

At least one member of the security contingent flashed his badge and demanded that hotel staff allow him to remain with a woman, the source said.

Prostitution is legal in "tolerance zones" in Colombia, though also widely practiced outside those areas without sanction.

Cartagena residents, who had hoped to project an image of warmth and hospitality to the world, tutted their disapproval.

"This links Cartagena with prostitution and that's not fair," said Maria Consuelo Ortega, 33, who works in a store in the colonial quarter of the city.

"How can it be forgotten when it's linked to Obama?"

(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Xavier Briand)

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