When Mark Sullivan retired in February as the 22nd director of the Secret Service, he surely wanted to be remembered for three decades of faithfully protecting Presidents, candidates for national office, and other high-ranking officials. But most Americans will remember his tenure for something Sullivan probably wishes he could forget: the booze-fueled antics of 13 Secret Service agents who set out for a wild night in a seaside resort and ended up starring in an international sex scandal.
A year ago, revelations that Secret Service agents had hired prostitutes during a presidential trip to Cartagena, Colombia, triggered the most embarrassing incident in the 148-year-old agency’s history. Its 3,500 special agents see themselves as the elite among law-enforcement officers: Those who protect the President have pledged that they would take a bullet for him.
Stories of agents behaving badly on the job embarrassed President Obama and overshadowed his visit to the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 33 of the hemisphere’s leaders. Sullivan was hauled before members of Congress, who feared that by bringing women back to their hotel rooms, agents who might know the details of the President’s personal security had opened themselves to blackmail. Drug cartels in Colombia are also known to use prostitutes as spies.
The agents never dreamed they’d be found out by their bosses, their wives, and the entire world. And with good reason. The truth is, such late-night outings aren’t all that unusual. Some of the men in Cartagena had hired hookers on the road before. At least one had had long-distance affairs with women he’d met in bars while traveling with two Presidents. And all of them could believe, based on prior experience, that while the Secret Service didn’t expressly condone womanizing and solicitation, it didn’t go out of its way to stamp out such behavior, either.
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The wheels were set in motion early Wednesday morning, April 11, when a plane carrying a few dozen Secret Service agents touched down in Colombia. Another team would follow a few hours later. The agents ranged in age and experience, from men in their twenties to a pair of supervisors in their forties. Some were married, others single or divorced.
The men aboard the two planes would eventually join a contingent of nearly 200 Secret Service personnel. Uniformed military servicemembers would be on the ground, too. And some members of the White House advance team had been in Cartagena for a week already.
After landing in Colombia, the agents checked into the Hotel Caribe, a beachfront resort in the city’s Bocagrande district, which is popular with tourists. After a rest, they broke into groups and headed out for dinner. The President wasn’t due in town for more than 48 hours, so the men had a free night to explore.
Several dozen Secret Service personnel went out on the town in different groups. The State Department had given the Secret Service a list of reputable establishments where the men might spend their downtime. One group checked out the Hard Rock Cafe; it was dead, so they left. But tourist-trap chains aren’t why foreigners come to Cartagena.
The city is famous for its pulsing dance clubs, beautiful women, and legalized prostitution. It has been described as the Las Vegas of South America, a city “swimming in prostitutes”—the kind of place where a bunch of drunk, horny Americans wouldn’t draw a second glance. A foreigner overnighting in Cartagena doesn’t have to look far to find a strip club that doubles as a bordello. Some of them even get the awkward business of payment out of the way up-front, a system known as prepago, and then let the men relax with the women over drinks before taking them back to their hotels.
The agents asked locals, including taxi drivers and waiters, where to find good clubs. Some were directed to a bar with an Egyptian theme and a deejay. Others ended up in a strip joint that did a prepago business. A third group found its way to Tu Candela—“your flame”—a narrow bar and dance club in Cartagena’s El Centro district, a heavily touristed part of the city’s old town. Tu Candela markets itself as a hot spot for foreigners. On travel sites, it’s also been flagged as a good place to find “working girls.”
That’s where Arthur Huntington, a chiseled 41-year-old marksman, first set eyes on a beautiful stranger and began the end of his career as a Secret Service agent.
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Dania Suarez was well acquainted with the cheesy clubs frequented by Americans. When the 24-year-old brunette spotted Huntington and his friends, she thought they looked like regular Americans. She admired Huntington’s muscular physique. As he swayed on the dance floor, he lifted his shirt and showed her his washboard abs.
Suarez may have wondered why Huntington felt the need to show off, considering her line of work. As he made his way over to her and a friend with a group of fellow agents, she thought they seemed to know the score. “The way they approached us, it seems obvious that they were used to doing it, because people who do this for the first time are very shy,” Suarez later told NBC’s Today show.
“It” was approaching an escort, which is what Suarez considered herself to be. Not a common streetwalker or a denizen of the city’s low-end puteaderos (whorehouses). Suarez was a woman of “higher rank,” she would later tell the New York Times, “someone a man can take out to dinner. She can dress nicely, wear nice makeup, speak and act like a lady. That’s me.”
Suarez, a single mother of a nine-year-old boy and a native of the small Caribbean island of San Andrés, didn’t exactly advertise her profession. “She never told us what she did for a living, but it was obvious,” a neighbor told a newspaper reporter. “She was home all day and left late at night looking very nice.” Suarez rented a small apartment in a private home and reportedly kept to herself. She told some neighbors she was a dancer.
Suarez didn’t ask Huntington what he did for a living. She had no idea that the handsome American was a law-enforcement agent, much less that he was in Cartagena to protect President Obama.
Some agents pride themselves on keeping a low profile on the road and won’t say they work for the Secret Service, even if they let on that they’re in law enforcement. But others in Cartagena that night reportedly bragged that they worked for Obama. Huntington had played the Secret Service card on previous trips as a way to attract women. Agents say that when they roll into town on a presidential visit, it’s obvious to women in bars and clubs that the big guys from out of town are there on official business. “Rock stars without guitars,” some have called themselves.