x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Colombian cabbie an unlikely celebrity in US Secret Service sex scandal

Jose Pena, the president of the Hotel Caribe taxi stand, drove home the prostitute who argued with a US Secret Service over payment at a five-star hotel.

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA // The Secret Service sex scandal has spawned X-rated jokes, inspired a spicy song set to a local Caribbean beat, and made an unlikely celebrity of a 42-year-old taxi driver who lives with his mother and now seems to be in hiding.

With no other decent leads locally, scoop-hungry journalists fought all week for the favour of Jose Pena, the president of the Hotel Caribe taxi stand who happened to drive home the prostitute who set the scandal in motion.

Fiercely competitive reporters from tabloids to TV networks accused one another of bidding up Mr Pena's fees. He would disappear for hours in the employ of one or another, the spurned reporters redialling him incessantly, filling his voicemail box with entreaties.

It was Mr Pena, after all, who led journalists to the whitewashed, two-family house in a quiet cul-de-sac on the edge of town where he said the woman lived with her nine-year-old son. And he described how the woman told him a US Secret Service agent refused to pay her full fee and locked his door at the five-star hotel on the morning of April 12.

"He's the most important man in the world this week," joked William Jimenez, a fellow taxi driver.

Colombians had riotous fun at the Americans' expense on Twitter and Facebook, with one wag tying the charge that one of the agents had tried to shortchange one of the prostitutes with the US-Colombia free trade agreement whose implementation was announced just after the summit.

"I don't think any mistake was made. They thought that now that the FTA was approved there was no need to pay tariffs," it read.

There was also a sense of indignation.

"It's pretty clear that they want to treat Latin America as a brothel," the Colombian newsmagazine Semana quoted one tweet as saying about the US agents.

The scandal broke after police and hotel security workers were called into the dispute between the woman and the agent over money.

Soon, 11 agents were headed back to the US to face misconduct charges. Six have since lost their jobs, and the US military is separately investigating 11 servicemen. US investigators have determined that about 20 Colombian women spent the night at the Caribe with members of the US president Barack Obama's security detail less than 48 hours before his arrival for a summit.

"The secret agents didn't think about Obama. All they thought about was being in bed," says the song taking off on the scandal, which got its video release at a Cartagena club on Saturday evening.

Several dozen US-based reporters had rushed to the colonial Caribbean port to report on the developing sex scandal, joining those already there to cover last weekend's Summit of the Americas.