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Panetta Questioned About Another Prostitute Controversy

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right, and Brazil’s Defense Minister Celso Amorim attend a joint press conference in Brasilia, Brazil, April 24, 2012.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is dealing with another controversy involving U.S. servicemen and prostitutes in South America - this time in Brazil.

On Tuesday, Panetta arrived in the capital, Brasilia, aiming to discuss defense cooperation, trade, cybersecurity and other issues with his counterparts. But much of the attention was diverted from those topics when Brazilian reporters confronted him with questions about at least three U.S. Embassy Marine guards who were involved in a physical altercation with a prostitute in December.

An unidentified U.S. Defense official said the Marines and a U.S. Embassy employee picked up two prostitutes at a nightclub in Brasilia and had a dispute over payment while in a car. Another official said one of the women was pushed out of the car and suffered a broken collar bone.

Secretary Panetta said the Marines have been penalized.

“This incident was fully investigated and those that were involved have been punished and held accountable," he declared at a briefing. "They are no longer in this country. They were reduced in rank and they were severely punished for that behavior. I have no tolerance for that kind of conduct. Not here, or any place in the world. And where it takes place, you can be assured that we will act and make sure they are punished and that kind of behavior is not acceptable.”

Panetta traveled to Brazil from Colombia, where he faced questions about several U.S military personnel allegedly involved in the hiring of prostitutes this month while helping with security preparations ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Cartagena.

Monday, Panetta said the security clearances of the U.S. military personnel involved have been suspended pending investigation.

The Brasilia prostitute incident has been in the Brazilian media for months, but it received new attention after the events in Cartagena. Upon hearing coverage of that incident, the prostitute in Brazil hired an attorney to initiate a lawsuit against the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia.

U.S. officials say the American Embassy has paid the woman's medical expenses. The embassy staffer who took part in the incident was reassigned.