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The secret service prostitution scandal: it’s about more than national security
Given what we know about the sex trade in Colombia, the US has a responsibility to investigate possible trafficking of women

Janice Raymond

Secret service agents walk around Cartagena on Saturday. The suspension of 11 agents over alleged misconduct in Colombia has the summit. Photograph: Fernando Llano/AP
Tired of yet one more political prostitution scandal caused by men who can’t keep it in their pants? And now, the elite guard of the US president’s secret service detail.

Most interesting is what has and has not been said by authorities when asked about the US secret service and military personnel’s use of women in prostitution. Embarrassed by allegations that ten military men were involved in the Colombian scandal of buying women for the sex of prostitution, the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, seemed most concerned that “We let the boss down.” He also added, “We’re embarrassed by what occurred in Colombia, though we’re not sure exactly what it is.”

We’re not sure exactly whether the general knows that the Department of Defense (DoD) has a zero tolerance policy opposing the purchasing of persons in prostitution, recognizing that it contributes to sex-trafficking. Readers learn that prostitution is legal in certain areas of Colombia called “tolerance zones”. We don’t learn that patronizing prostitution by US servicemen is illegal anywhere. Since 2006, patronizing prostitution is a crime when committed by service members under article 134 of the US military’s criminal law (the uniform code of military justice).

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking member of the homeland security and governmental affairs committee, is worried that the prostituted women might be members of groups hostile to the United States – agents of terrorists, perhaps – who might have planted listening devices and jeopardized presidential security. This followed revelations that 20-21 of the women are foreign nationals, who were brought to the hotel after US officials spent the night boozing and buying women through the “Pley Club” in Cartagena. Senator Collins wants the women tracked down to find out who they are and with whom they might be affiliated.

Those working against the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children know that “tolerance zones” in countries that have legalized prostitution – which is actually legalization of brothels and pimping – are magnets for traffickers. The “Pley Club” is a strip club and brothel. Worldwide, such clubs provide cover for the recruitment and use of women and girls for commercial sexual exploitation.

The secret service detail didn’t simply take a stroll to an isolated brothel. There are rows of sex clubs and brothels in the Cartagena prostitution zone, where many women from different countries also walk the streets in search of “customers” seeking sexual services. The US officials were among the hundreds of US sex tourists who, every year, visit these sex clubs and brothels. Pimps control many of the women in the legal tolerance zones. The woman who set the secret service scandal in motion sought more money from the secret service agent than the puny $30 he’d paid her because she had to pay her (legal) pimp.

Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz, regional director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, says that many women in the brothels of Cartagena are victims of sex-trafficking. Women displaced as a result of the internal armed conflict in Colombia were trafficked into prostitution in places like Cartagena. Sex-trafficking became prevalent not only in Cartagena, but in other parts of Colombia when members of the drug cartels used their criminal networks to take over the prostitution trade.

As for the men who are prostitution-users, many come to Cartagena on official business. Teresa Ulloa states that Cartagena has also become a paradise for tourists who seek sex with children.

President Obama said that he “would be angry” if allegations were true that these US officials had bought women for prostitution in Cartagena. Obama, who seldom gets angry, though he tends to do so more in pre-election periods, should translate these words into action. He should apply his own words spoken in Colombia – where he took a strong stand against legalization of the drug trade – to the prostitution trade:

“The capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting, than the status quo.”

The US government has a responsibility to probe whether these women might be victims of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Of course, the women won’t immediately tell their truths to another branch of the same authorities that used them sexually, nor to inquiring journalists. However, the US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking should be brought into the investigation, and local authorities and NGOs should be enlisted who are experienced in assisting women who are victims of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

There’s more than national security involved in the secret service prostitution scandal. If the US military code of justice means what it says, buying women in prostitution anyplace is a crime for US servicemen. It should also be a crime for other federal agents. If our US Trafficking Victims Protection Act means what it says, the presumption should be that the women used for commercial sexual exploitation in Cartagena may have been trafficked for prostitution.
reprinted with permission of the author.
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