CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - U.S. Secret Service agents and soldiers tasked with protecting President Barack Obama at a summit in Colombia have instead embarrassed the United States by trying to consort with prostitutes.
The muddled and murky incident involving 16 security personnel and at least one working girl in the steamy Caribbean city of Cartagena has given a spy-thriller aura to a normally high-toned diplomatic gathering.
For the White House, the scandal at the Summit of the Americas has added an unwelcome twist to Obama's efforts to win back a region where U.S. influence is steadily waning.
"We don't like what they did. It makes our city look bad. They came to look after their president, not to have a party," said Cartagena street-vendor Rosa Elena Prieto. "The weak flesh of men costs them their jobs."
Cartagena, with its cobble-stoned colonial quarter, has been known for years as a hedonistic playground with thriving nightlife, free-flowing rum and salsa music. It was featured in the 1984 Hollywood action comedy "Romancing the Stone."
In a trickle of statements meant to fend off the swirling controversy, the U.S. government has referred only to "alleged misconduct" and started an investigation.
But it confirmed grounding five military servicemen in their hotel and sending home 11 agents of the Secret Service, known for their dark shades, sharp suits and imperturbable demeanor.
One Colombian policeman and U.S. Congressman Peter King, who heads a committee that oversees the secret service, confirmed that women were taken back to the men's hotel rooms.
The situation apparently came to a head when hotel staff refused to allow a prostitute up without registering her. "When the hotel desk refused, they said 'come, we're secret service,'" the policeman told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
The incident took place in Cartagena's Hotel Caribe, a luxurious colonial-style building with a modern wing attached, located in an area of high-rises frequented by well-heeled locals and tourists drawn to the city's beaches.
It is near the Hilton, where Obama stayed.
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The public relations manager of the hotel declined to provide details of the incident. She asked media instead to report on the cordial welcome she had given journalists in a coastal town famous for its charm and warmth.
Prostitution is legal in "tolerance zones" in Colombia, though it is also widely practiced outside those areas without sanction.
The White House said Obama was staying focused on his agenda of job creation through better economic integration with Latin American and the Caribbean.
"Our focus here, the president's focus, continues to be on the meetings he's having," spokesman Jay Carney said.
An official at one of the main summit hotels said the composition of the U.S. security contingent was altered after the incident to include more Spanish-speaking women.
"There are a lot more women than before. They speak Spanish and they are very rigorous," she said.
In Cartagena, English-speaking "fixers" provide foreign tourists with a range of shady diversions including prostitutes, cocaine and cock-fights.
U.S. soldiers and contractors participating in U.S.-backed anti-narcotics efforts in Colombia have in the past been involved in sex scandals in rural areas near the bases where they were stationed.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Caren Bohan, Writing by Brian Ellsworth, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Todd Eastham)