CARTAGENA, Colombia — Rubbing eyes drowsy from lack of sleep and still smudged with the previous night’s mascara, the employees of the Angeles Bar Club trooped one by one on Tuesday afternoon into a tiny bedroom with stickers of Tinker Bell and Sleeping Beauty pasted on the mauve walls to sit down on a bed with a lime green comforter and be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
It is a weekly routine at brothels across Cartagena, whose thriving and legal prostitution business, much of it oriented toward foreign tourists, has become the focus of international attention since a group of American Secret Service agents became embroiled in scandal over allegations of taking prostitutes to their hotel rooms.
“All they talk about is the dark side of prostitution,” said the club’s owner, who goes by the name Camila, referring to news media reports of Cartagena’s rambunctious nightlife scene. She leafed through a stack of folders containing the test results of her 22 employees. The brothel insists that all customers use condoms and, according to a public health official who has worked with the club, none of its prostitutes have been found to be infected in three years of testing.
“This is for the benefit of the clients and for the benefit of the girls,” said Camila, who asked that her real name not be used because some people do not know she runs a brothel. “They have families they are sending money to, children they want to see grow up.”
Cartagenans in and out of the brothels have struggled to come to terms with all the commotion over the nighttime activities of American security agents in advance of President Obama’s arrival in Cartagena on April 13 for a summit meeting.
Many here are perplexed about why the Americans have made such a fuss over something as unremarkable, in local eyes, as a man taking a woman to a hotel room, and paying for sex.
There is also some expression of anger and wounded national pride over the behavior of the Secret Service agent who refused to pay and who, according to the woman involved, shouted an expletive at her and locked her out of his hotel room in an early-morning row.
“Just because you come from another country and you work for Obama, you shouldn’t be able to come here and treat someone with disrespect,” said a 28-year-old employee at Angeles, who has worked as a prostitute for six years.
The prostitute at the center of the events touched on the same idea in an interview shortly after the scandal broke.
“You can’t go to another country and do whatever you want with a woman,” she said. “You have to respect them.”
The woman, who has since left Cartagena, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that she had not spoken to American investigators seeking to interview the local women who stayed in the Secret Service agents’ hotel rooms.
Prostitution is legal in Colombia, and many here say that is as it should be. But the Colombian attitude toward prostitution is not so simple. Colombia is, in many ways, a deeply traditional society, and working as a prostitute carries a heavy stigma.
In interviews, numerous prostitutes said that they hid their sex work from their families. Most came from other parts of the country, like Medellín or Cali, in order to minimize the chance that someone in their family would find out how they were making a living in Cartagena.
“If my mother knew, she wouldn’t take the money I send her and she would try to have my daughters taken away from me,” said a 28-year-old prostitute from Medellín.
On Tuesday, in Room No. 7 at the brothel, all the women handed over a portion of their profits to pay for their tests. The weekly swab for vaginal infections costs about $6. Every three months, the women also take tests for syphilis and the virus that causes AIDS, which cost about an additional $17.
A pair of women, apparently exhausted from a long night, sprawled out asleep on a second bed in the cramped room, oblivious to the comings and goings of a white-coated lab technician and their co-workers. One of the sleeping women used a stuffed Minnie Mouse doll as a pillow.
The testing took place in the afternoon, when the brothel was empty of customers. But as evening approached, women sat at plastic tables to grab quick meals of rice, shredded beef or scrambled eggs, prepared by a cook in the brothel’s kitchen. Others retreated to the small rooms — where they both live and serve clients — to put on sparkly eye shadow and fuchsia lipstick, iron their hair, fish red or black high heels out of a beer crate, or slip into work clothes.
The woman who had worked for six years having sex for money said that most of her time had been spent in brothels in Bogotá, where she said tests were not done. She said she much preferred working in Cartagena, in part because of the testing but mostly because the foreign tourists here pay higher rates.
One woman mused that it would be only fair if the men who pay to have sex with them were tested as well.
On occasion, that happens, according to the brothel owner.
Sometimes, she said, a customer will come to her to say that a condom has broken and he will ask if the prostitute he was with has been tested for sexually transmitted diseases. She will then show the customer the woman’s most recent test results.
Twice, she said, customers have agreed to take a rapid H.I.V. test to show that they, too, are uninfected.
The brothel owner said that the local health authorities frequently come to inspect her employees’ records.
Still, El Universal, Cartagena’s leading newspaper, has lamented all the attention on the city’s prostitution scene and expressed concern that its reputation could suffer.
“That is all we needed,” the paper said in an editorial. “Now Cartagena is the city of sin that corrupts the countrymen of Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton and Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam.”