CARTAGENA, Colombia — At the Ligueros Club, one of many busy bordellos in this seaside tourist city, prostitutes dressed in lingerie wait for a bell to ring, signaling the arrival of men on the prowl. But the next group of U.S. visitors to walk in the door may not be customers at all.
U.S. investigators seeking to get to the bottom of the reported late-night activities of a group of Secret Service agents and military personnel assigned to President Barack Obama's recent visit to Colombia have begun searching for as many as 21 women who are believed to include prostitutes and to have spent the night with the security officers.
After uncovering evidence of misconduct, investigators for the Secret Service are seeking to interview women who are said to have accompanied 11 agents — including snipers and explosives experts — to their hotel rooms after a night of heavy drinking, said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
The agency knows their identities because the hotel where they stayed has a policy requiring women to leaving copies of their identification cards before going into rooms, said King, who was briefed on the investigation Tuesday morning by Secret Service director Mark Sullivan.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who was also briefed by Sullivan, said 20 to 21 local women were brought into the Hotel Caribe, a sprawling beachfront complex. She said some of the women accompanied Secret Service agents and others escorted members of the military, which is conducting its own investigation.
The disclosures make clear that what first appeared to be an isolated case of misbehavior was in fact a night of more widespread debauchery.
The accusations are triggering scrutiny of the culture of the Secret Service, where married agents have been heard to joke during aircraft takeoff that their motto is "wheels up, rings off."
The participation of two Secret Service supervisors, people with knowledge of the investigation told the Washington Post, suggests that the men had little fear of repercussions until hotel workers and Colombian police reported the matter to the U.S. Embassy.
On Monday, an Air Force colonel and a military lawyer arrived in Colombia to conduct an investigation on behalf of the Defense Department, said Col. Scott Malcom, chief spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.
The enlisted personnel under scrutiny include two Marine dog handlers; at least one member of the Army Green Berets from the 7th Special Forces Group, which focuses on South America; and Air Force and Navy personnel who specialize in the disposal of explosives.
The dual investigations have cast a light on Cartagena's free-wheeling nightlife, where prostitutes walk the street and work in the bars and an array of private clubs, where they sometimes live and in some cases charge $300 or more to go out with customers.
Prostitution is legal in Colombia in "tolerance zones." A number of brothels in Cartagena are in these zones.
Exactly where the U.S. security personnel met the women was still under investigation, the U.S. officials said, with more than one establishment under review.
"The 11 agents are having different recollections about what happened, or are not telling the truth," King said.
The 11 individuals were part of a much larger Secret Service contingent of dozens supporting Obama's visit. The agents arrived in Colombia on Tuesday or Wednesday and, according to King, had not yet been briefed on their specific assignments or started their official duties when they went out Wednesday night.
The president arrived in Cartagena on Friday afternoon for the Summit of the Americas.
The number of military personnel under scrutiny in the case, which the Pentagon initially numbered at five, is between 10 and 12, the officials said. It was not believed that the Secret Service agents and the military personnel went out in one large party, officials said, indicating that there may have been two or more groups of Americans who went out that night.
"There are different versions of what happened, but the latest version is that one of the women complained at 6 in the morning that she hadn't been paid," King said. "The Secret Service wouldn't let the hotel manager into the room, and the police came."
Carlos Figueroa, a spokesman for the Cartagena mayor's office, said that the local police were assisting their U.S. counterparts.
Collins said she pressed the Secret Service to find out who the women were and whether they had ties to groups hostile to the United States.
Collins said she had asked of the Secret Service, "Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons," or in other ways "jeopardized security of the president or our country? Is there any evidence of previous misconduct by these or any other agents on other missions?"
At his daily briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama has "confidence" in Sullivan's leadership of the Secret Service and will await the results of an internal investigation before weighing in further on the future of the agency.
"Sullivan acted quickly in response to this incident, and he's overseeing an investigation as we speak," Carney said. "We're not going to speculate about the conclusions it might reach."