The allegations that nearly 20 Secret Service and military personnel who were part of President Obama’s security detail spent their down time hiring prostitutes at the Hotel Caribe bar in Cartagena, Colombia, would be a shocking dereliction of duty for the elite men who defend our country’s leaders. This is not strictly a matter of morality, marital fidelity, or following the law. A president’s personal safety abroad is a matter of national security. And as in the Cold War, when plenty of state secrets were exchanged in bedrooms across Europe, consorting with prostitutes is a serious lapse.
Though the Secret Service maintains that the men involved in the scandal were providing support services for Obama’s visit, not serving as bodyguards, the allegations suggest a recklessness about the agency’s mission of protecting presidents from harm. That these lapses occurred in Colombia, a nation with high levels of violence and a history of kidnappings and assassinations, only underscores the need for a thorough and independent investigation.
Beyond the lapses in personal judgment, there may also have been failures in managerial oversight, training, and planning by Secret Service commanders. Given the ease of the Hotel Caribe interaction — the prostitutes were in the bar — and the number of government personnel involved, it is hard to imagine that the Cartagena affair was a one-time episode.
While the men involved have been placed on leave pending further investigation, what they did as representatives of the United States government may have longer-term consequences. Obama was in Colombia for the Summit of the Americas meeting. That the United States and its southern neighbors are drifting apart was the only clear takeaway from a largely unsuccessful meeting. The administration’s continuing attempts to isolate Cuba and its unwillingness to consider changes to its drug policies were at odds with a region that is showing greater independence from US influence as its economies continue to develop.
The scandal may reinforce impressions of North American arrogance — of a view of Latin America as a place to party rather than to do serious business. The Colombians and their neighbors beg to differ. For them, the partying is over.