Whatever really happened here in the neon bordellos, salsa clubs and king-size beds at the Hotel Caribe — between the male Secret Service officers and their new female friends — one thing is apparent: The agents were in the right place to get into trouble.

Cartagena is swimming in prostitutes.

On Saturday night in front of the Tu Candela bar, where some of the U.S. agents reportedly cavorted, young women dressed in jeans and flats leapt from taxis, ran around the corner, changed clothes and emerged transformed: in tiny black dresses and high heels and ready to “party.”

Within minutes, they were stroking the liver spots of some aging Spaniard or working an eager German tourist. And away the couples went — for a few hours of drinking and dancing and then back to the hotels.

Nothing subtle about it.

Prostitution in Colombia is legal and widely accepted, a slightly embarrassing but very real part of the booming tourist trade here, as the nation sheds its international reputation for hyper-violent cocaine cartels (Pablo Escobar, rest in peace), and the tourists return to appreciate the beautiful beaches, great rum and colonial architecture of cities such as Cartagena, a World Heritage site.

When the news broke that 11 Secret Service agents and officers were sent home for romping with hookers on the eve of President Obama’s trip to the Organization of American States summit, many Colombians were amused.

“It is normal, no? These are our beauty queens,” said Elgoyo Payares, owner of La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban-style restaurant-bar in the old city. “And a man, even a secret agent type, does not leave his private parts at home when he travels.”

But the lighthearted response shifted when it became clear that the Secret Service scandal was overwhelming the good news about a peaceful, prosperous Colombia.

“It is a shame, because we have so much to offer, not just girls,” said Angela Vazquez, who works at a car dealership in Bogota and was enjoying a mojito at one of the hemisphere’s best-known salsa joints, the Cafe Havana, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton danced at the close of the summit last week.

But, Vazquez sighed, maybe it was getting a little out of hand. Outside the Cafe Havana, streetwalkers were swarming around male tourists, hissing “Hola, papi!” and begging to join them for a drink.

Students and secretaries

“Our message is simple. Don’t come here to sleep with our girls, our children. They’re just teenagers. It’s disgusting,” said Blanca Castillo, who owns a jade jewelry store in the old city and volunteers for a group that pushes authorities to keep minors out of the sex trade.

Locals worry that many of the escorts — the euphemism of choice here — are amateurs, some of them college students, others moonlighting secretaries and shop clerks. A 2010 study by Edgar Alfonso Acuna of the University of San Buenaventura estimated that 2 percent of Cartagena college students were working as escorts, motivated by their desire to buy luxury goods and stylish clothes, and reporting monthly incomes of $2,000 to $3,000. Castillo said the scandal hurt Colombia’s reputation. “Aren’t there prostitutes in Washington, too?” she asked.

Sure there are. But there isn’t a shuttle bus service to reach them. In addition to the clubs where independent prostitutes hustle clients, there are Web sites offering to send a call girl to your hotel room “within 30 minutes, guaranteed.” And the city has dozens of bordellos.

At Isis, a bordello two blocks from Tu Candela, two dozen young women in stylish clothes milled about the dark club, their faces aglow as they thumbed their BlackBerrys.

Jimena, wearing a white sundress, was sucking on a lollipop. She said she was 19 and had been in the city for only a week. When she wasn’t at Isis, she said, she worked as a dance school instructor. She looked like Britney Spears during her cheerleader phase.

“I like old men,” she told a prospective client. Old men with beer guts? “Sure!” she said.

Payment in advance

The latest phenomenon in Cartagena prostitution is the system called “prepago,” or pre-payment, and it is designed to avoid the very kind of early-morning fee dispute that investigators say occurred in a hallway of the Hotel Caribe on April 12, when a U.S. officer from a Secret Service advance team and the woman who spent the night with him argued, loudly, which eventually attracted hotel security and Colombian police and prompted a call to the U.S. Embassy.

Jimena said the prepago system was good business, for both client and service provider. To go to a room in the back of the Isis costs $100. To go to a hotel for the night would be $350, she explained, gratuities welcome.

The taxi drivers who work the clubs say any prostitutes who went with any of the American agents are hiding from the media and authorities. The alleged prostitute at the center of the case, who gave a single interview, to the New York Times, has left her home, her attorney said. Her picture was published in the New York Daily News from images taken from Facebook.

Clovis del Rio, a taxi driver stationed at the Hotel Caribe, said the pictures of the now-famous alleged prostitute are both good and bad. “Good that she is beautiful,” he said, “and bad for the American agent.”