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Colombian escort industry still abuzz over summit sex scandal

Mixing business and pleasure might kill some careers, but in Colombia, at least, it’s not necessarily illegal.

At least 11 U.S. Secret Service agents and several U.S. military personnel are being investigated over allegations that they took prostitutes back to the hotel where President Barack Obama would stay for the Summit of the Americas.

The scandal at the otherwise staid weekend event provoked a strong rebuke from Obama, but the men may not have broken Colombian law.

Colombian municipalities have the liberty to declare “tolerance zones,” where prostitution is legal, the national police said. Cartagena has declared such zones and some of the prime tourist areas are peppered with clubs that offer sex, more or less, openly and explicitly.

Citing government sources, The New York Daily News said the U.S. Secret Service agents had picked up women at Corporación Pley Club — a squat, windowless building with poles and an indoor shower.

Leonardo Quintero, an accountant at the Pley Club who has been fielding phone calls since the scandal broke, said Monday, “I can’t believe how far this news has reached. It’s false; it’s a lie. We have all sorts of people come in and out of here, both tourists and nationals, but nobody can truly say that those people were here.”

According to reports, one prostitute blew the whistle after a U.S. official took her back to his hotel Wednesday and refused to pay for services rendered.

Quintero said the club does not let its escorts leave with customers before their fee has been paid, so a fight over money sounded unlikely.

“The scandal was at the hotel, not here, so I keep thinking it’s the hotel that’s trying to put the blame on us,” he said.

The news broke as more than 30 regional presidents were gathering in the steamy port city of Cartagena for the VI Summit of the Americas. Obama arrived Friday afternoon and left Sunday, and officials said his security was never compromised.

The president has called for a “thorough” and “rigorous” investigation into the incident. “When we travel to another country, I expect us to observe the highest standards because we’re not just representing ourselves; we’re here on behalf of our people,” Obama said Sunday during a joint news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “And that means that we conduct ourselves with the utmost dignity and probity. And obviously what’s been reported doesn’t match up with those standards.”

The U.S. State Department has taken a strong stance against international prostitution, saying it is “inherently harmful, dehumanizing and fuels trafficking in persons.” In its 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department found that Colombia is one of the Western Hemisphere’s “major source countries for women and girls trafficked abroad for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.”

Fabio, who works at Cartagena escort service Prepago 1000, or “Prepaid 1000,” said most “reputable” organizations would have avoided the problem.

“I think the agents must have picked up someone off the street or an ‘independent’,” said Fabio, who refused to give his last name. “If you’re using a real service, you don’t get those kind of surprises If they had hired one of our girls, for example, there would never have been that kind of scandal.”

On Monday, workers at the Pley Club were searching for a silver lining in all the phone calls.

“It’s a lie and that’s not good for anybody,” Quintero said. “But it’s also free publicity.”