Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Cuzco, Peru: An ancient Inca city at the heart of narcotics trade

The Peruvian city of Cuzco has two very different reputations. The World Heritage Site is internationally renowned as the gateway to the ancient Inca civilisation. But to others, it is a major gateway in the transportation of Peruvian cocaine to the rest of the world.

Cuzco, population 360,000, is also the last city Tyrone woman Michaella McCollum Connolly visited before her freedom was suddenly curtailed.

Located in the Southern Sierras, Cuzco is a fascinating and striking place that was once the capital of the Inca Empire and is for many the first step on the spectacular trail to the tourist magnet of Machu Picchu.

How Ms McCollum Connolly and her friend Melissa Reid ended up in the city, while supposed to be holidaying thousands of miles away in Ibiza, is still a mystery for their families.

While we don't know how the young women came to be in Cuzco, it is known to be their last stop before attempting to fly back from South America to Spain.

Ms McCollum Connolly's long journey to Cuzco began in Ibiza where she was working for the summer on a break from life in Belfast. The 20-year-old photography student, along with her travelling companion, Melissa Reid (19), flew from Palma Majorca to Madrid on July 31. From there, they boarded a flight which took them thousands of miles across the Atlantic to the Peruvian capital of Lima.

The women stayed overnight in Lima before boarding a one-hour domestic flight which took them to the popular tourist trail of Cuzco. As well as its important place on the Inca trail, it's also a lively spot known for its nightlife.

The pair are known to have stayed in the city for four nights before returning to Lima on August 5.

It was the next day, when they tried to board a plane which would take them back to Spain, that Ms McCollum Connolly's travels came to an abrupt halt at Jorge Chavez International Airport. The flight was supposed to take them back to Madrid where a flight was scheduled to take them on to Palma -- but they were arrested when their bags were searched as they presented themselves at an Air Europa counter.

The police said over 11 kilos of cocaine, hidden in food products, were discovered divided into the luggage of both young women after detection by sniffer dogs.

The UN believes that Peru has become the world's biggest producer of coca leaf, and now rivals Colombia for cocaine production.

Cuzco is a key location in the blossoming -- and highly lucrative -- industry. The city is a top pick-up spot used by the south American drug cartel as a place for transporting cocaine.

The drugs mules, or 'burriers' as they are known, who have been recruited by the major operators are said to be increasingly coming from Europe, mainly Spain.

The one-hour domestic flight Ms McCollum Connolly took from Lima to Cuzco is made by thousands throughout the year, looking to embark on the Inca Trail and view the Sacred Valley.

Drugs aside, it is Peru's place in ancient civilisation that contributes most to its allure and Cuzco is also a key location in this, bringing in almost two million visitors a year.

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