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 favor 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 Pena's fees. He would disappear for hours in the employ of one or another, the spurned reporters redialing him incessantly, filling his voice mail box with entreaties.
It was Pena, after all, who led journalists to the whitewashed, two-family house on a quiet cul-de-sac on the edge of town where he said the woman lived with her 9-year-old son. And he described how the woman told him a Secret Service agent refused to pay her full fee and locked his door at the five-star hotel the morning of April 12.
"He's the most important man in the world this week," joked fellow taxi driver William Jimenez.
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 U.S.-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."
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 U.S. 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 U.S. to face misconduct charges. Six have since lost their jobs, and the U.S. military is separately investigating 11 servicemen. U.S. investigators have determined that about 20 Colombian women spent the night at the Caribe with members of 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," said the song taking off on the scandal that got its video release Saturday evening at a Cartagena club.
Several dozen U.S.-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.
They've scoured bars and discotheques that prostitutes frequent, with names like Isis and Elektra, logging hours and downing overpriced cocktails while trying to find at least one of the women who allegedly spent the night with members of Obama's security detail.
It didn't help that Hotel Caribe workers were muzzled by their employer and normally helpful senior Colombian police and government officials also clammed up.
One news outlet eventually published photos, found on Facebook, that it said were of the woman who set off the scandal.
The Facebook page was taken down soon after, but by then reporters had a photo of the bikini-clad woman to help in their search. It was shown to desk clerks, maids and bellhops in hopes they would identify her as having been at the hotel.
Neighbors of the home where Pena took journalists identified the woman as "Dania," a woman in her mid-20s from the Caribbean island of San Andres who abandoned her home Wednesday morning with her 9-year-old son and live-in maid and went into hiding.
Other taxi drivers also tried to cash in on the media frenzy. One tried to charge a reporter eight times the customary fee.
"Pena charged 500,000 pesos ($280) for the same thing," driver Marcos Miranda objected after a two-hour hire before resignedly accepting the equivalent of $30.
Yet Pena also broke a code of silence that protects sex workers and others, including cabbies, who take a cut of their earnings in exchange for finding clients, several drivers said privately.
Pena sounded distressed Friday in a phone conversation. Colombian prosecutors had called him in for questioning later that morning and he said he was afraid of being thrown in jail.
An Associated Press reporter who was still trying to catch up with him to have him identify the published photo as the woman he drove home from the Hotel Caribe encountered a worried mother, Gloria Hoyos, at the family home. "I don't eat. I don't sleep," she said, fighting back tears.
By Saturday, Pena's dizzying ride helping the media was over.
His one-story house in a lower-middle class neighborhood, where his 68-year-old mother sells gelatin desserts and flavored ice through barred windows, was shuttered and sealed with a padlock.
The woman known has Dania, meanwhile, has retained a lawyer named Marlon Betancourt, who has refused requests by the AP for comment. But he told another news organization that his client expects to sue the Secret Service agent for abusive behavior.
And his client intends to sell her story.
A police officer at the prosecutor's office, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, predicted big things for "Dania."
"She's going to be famous," he said. "Just wait. She'll be on the cover of Playboy magazine."
Associated Press writers Pedro Mendoza and Marko Alvarez in Cartagena and Vivian Sequera in Bogota contributed to this report.
In January, a video surfaced on YouTube that purportedly showed four U.S. Marines <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/11/marines-urinate-corpses-video-afghanistan_n_1200513.html" target="_hplink">urinating on the bodies</a> of three dead Taliban fighters. The Marine Corps launched an <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/13/marines-urinating-on-taliban-identified_n_1204653.html" target="_hplink">internal investigation</a> in addition to the criminal probe started by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the incident "utterly despicable." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/11/afghanistan-marines-urinating-video_n_1200324.html" target="_hplink">Read the full story here.</a> <em>Photo: This image made on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, from an undated video posted on the Internet on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, purports to show men in U.S. Marine combat gear standing in a semi-circle over three bodies, urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. (AP Photo) </em>
In February 2012, a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/09/us-marines-nazi-ss_n_1265930.html" target="_hplink">photo of a U.S. scout sniper team </a>posing in front of a flag that bore a logo resembling the Nazi SS symbol in 2010 surfaced. The <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16973868" target="_hplink">U.S. Marine Corps condemned the photograph</a>, but did not take any disciplinary action. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/09/us-marines-nazi-ss_n_1265930.html" target="_hplink">Read the full story here.</a> <em>Photo: This Sept. 2010 photo posted recently on the Titiusville, Fla.-based arms manufacturer Knight's Armament's Internet blog shows members of Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. in Sangin, Helmand province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/knightarmco.com)</em>
In February 2012, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/afghanistan-quran_n_1290098.html" target="_hplink">burning of Qurans</a> on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan ignited massive protests and resulted in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/afghanistan-protests-turn-violent_n_1292935.html" target="_hplink">multiple deaths and injuries</a>. Senior Pentagon officials <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/quran-burning-apology_n_1299971.html" target="_hplink">apologized for the incident</a>, calling it an accident. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/afghanistan-quran_n_1290098.html" target="_hplink">Read the full story here.</a> <em>Photo: Afghan demonstrators show copies of Quran books allegedly set alight by U.S. soldiers, during a protest against Quran desecration at the gate of Bagram airbase on February 21, 2012, at Bagram about 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Kabul. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
According to the Associated Press, U.S. Secret Services agents were sent home after allegedly bringing back <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/secret-service-prostitute-scandal-sex-cartagena-colombia_n_1437845.html" target="_hplink">prostitutes to their hotel</a> in Cartagena, Colombia. The officers were in the Colombian city preparing for a visit by President Barack Obama for the Summit of the Americas. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/secret-service-prostitute-scandal-sex-cartagena-colombia_n_1437845.html" target="_hplink">Read the full story here. </a> <em>Photo: General view of the 'Pley Club' night club in Cartagena on April 18, 2012, where U.S. Secret Service bodyguards would have hired a group of prostitutes earlier this month. (MANUEL PEDRAZA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
In March, U.S. Staff Army Sgt. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/robert-bales-lawyer-smell-human-bodies_n_1387719.html" target="_hplink">Robert Bales allegedly massacred Afghan villagers</a> while they slept, the AP reports. He has been charged with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/robert-bales-to-be-charged-17-counts-of-murder_n_1373983.html" target="_hplink">17 counts of premeditated murder</a>, as well as a number of other offenses, the AP added in a separate story. Nine of his victims were children. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/robert-bales-to-be-charged-17-counts-of-murder_n_1373983.html" target="_hplink">Read the full story here</a>. <em>Photo: In this Sunday, March 11, 2012, file photo, Anar Gul gestures to the body of her grandchild, who was allegedly killed by a U.S. service member in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan, File)</em>
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