By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta
CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) - U.S. secret service agents and soldiers tasked with protecting President Barack Obama during a summit in Colombia have instead embarrassed him by apparently trying to party with prostitutes.
At least one member of the Secret Service - known for their dark shades, sharp suits and a stern demeanor - tried to take a prostitute up to a hotel room in tropical Cartagena without registering her, a local policeman told Reuters.
The Secret Service said on Friday it had sent home some of its officials following "allegations of misconduct," without commenting on details of the allegations.
Separately, the U.S. military said five of its servicemen had been grounded after violating a curfew and possibly engaging in "inappropriate conduct" in the same hotel as the secret service officers.
The scandal was the main topic of conversation among diplomats behind the scenes of the Summit of the Americas, adding an unwelcome twist to Obama's efforts to win back a region where U.S. influence is steadily waning.
"We don't like what they did. It makes our city look bad. They came to look after their president, not to have a party," Cartagena street-vendor Rosa Elena Prieto said of the scandal. "The weak flesh of men costs them their jobs."
Prostitution is widespread and legal in many parts of Colombia.
The manager of Cartagena's Hotel Caribe, where the incident occurred, declined to provide details. She asked media instead to report on the cordial welcome she had given journalists in a coastal town famous for its charm and warmth.
U.S. media reported that various agents had sought prostitutes in Cartagena.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said authorities were investigating the allegations of misconduct in Cartagena.
Asked about the military servicemen, he said "our understanding (is) this is part of the same incident" as that involving the secret service.
He added: "Our focus here, the president's focus, continues to be on the meetings he's having" and the "tremendous potential" for expanding U.S. exports and creating jobs.
Cartagena's cobble-stoned colonial quarter, featured in the 1984 Hollywood action comedy "Romancing the Stone," offers thriving night life, complete with free-flowing rum and salsa music, for foreigners who come to visit the nearby beaches.
English-speaking "fixers" provide foreign tourists with a range of shady diversions including prostitutes, cocaine and cock-fights.
The Colombian policeman said the U.S. agent had tried to use a government badge to persuade hotel staff to allow the prostitute into the hotel without registering.
U.S. soldiers and contractors participating in U.S.-backed anti-narcotics efforts in Colombia have in the past been involved in sex scandals in rural areas near the bases where they were stationed.
An official at one of the main summit hotels said the composition of U.S. security personnel were altered after the incident to include more Spanish-speaking women.
"There are a lot more women than before. They speak Spanish and they are very rigorous," she said.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Caren Bohan, Writing by Brian Ellsworth, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Todd Eastham)