Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Peru drugs arrests: Life no longer so beautiful for young woman caught up in a real nightmare

Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly

The slogan on the black T-shirt worn by Michaella McCollum Connolly for her planned long-flight from Peru to Madrid summed up all her naivety in the face of a very grim situation.

'La Vie est Belle,' it read. 'Life is Beautiful'.

Up until that point, the 20-year-old part-time photography student and aspiring model from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, had no idea that life could be anything other than that.

It was to have been the summer of a lifetime – a sun-drenched, fun-filled escapade on the 'isla bonita' of Ibiza, otherwise known as party central.

In skimpy shorts and dramatic make-up, the bar girls of Ibiza earn just €5 an hour to entice punters into the trendy bars and wild clubs under the lurid neon signs of San Antonio's West End.

A website promoting bar and club work on the island promises: "This is guaranteed to be the best summer of your life."

In order to get a job in the clubs and bars of the "ultimate chill-out island", girls are told that they should be "gobby and gorgeous", or a "massive party animal who's super friendly", with the confidence to talk to strangers and to "drunk people".

Michaella seemed certain that she was up to the job.

No doubt her summer plans sparked the normal parental anxieties – and like all young women heading off for the summer, she probably brushed off their concerns, telling them not to worry, that she would be fine.

It was to be a welcome break from her part-time photography studies at Belfast Metropolitan College.

And Michaella had done her research – she used an online forum to seek shared accommodation on the island before she left in mid June.

For over six weeks, all went well. She posted dozens of photos on her Facebook page, saying she was having the time of her life.

By the end of July, Michaella ceased contact and a massive social-media campaign, supported by Irish Olympic boxer Michael Conlan, kicked into action to try and trace her.

And then she turned up in a holding cell in Lima, the Peruvian capital, where she, along with Glasgow girl Melissa Reid, faces charges of allegedly attempting to smuggle £1.5m worth of cocaine from Peru to Spain.

A video released of the moment the girls were seized by customs officers shows Michaella, her hair done up in the ubiquitous 'doughnut' of young girls, clutching her bright mauve wheelie case and wine-coloured carry-on bag.

They had been trying to check in for an Air Europa flight to Madrid, with Palma, Majorca, as their final destination

Police in Peru claim that both women had 11kg of cocaine between them wrapped up in food packages of jelly and an almond-flavoured drink mix stashed in their luggage.

A drugs cartel is likely to have offered the girls thousands of euros to act as 'mules' carrying cocaine from South America to Europe in their suitcases.

A total of 248 suspected mules were arrested at Lima's airport last year and nearly 1,600kg of drugs, mainly cocaine, was confiscated.

Shown on video, the girls seem confused but are still poignantly hopeful that they will be cleared of the charges.

They say they were coerced into carrying the drugs and had been threatened "at gunpoint" by a group of Colombians.

Offered a chance to talk to reporters, they declined uncertainly. They were shown on the video saying it had not been their choice to speak to the media.

For Michaella's family, it is a nightmare from which they are still struggling to wake up from.

Inundated with photographers and reporters on their doorstep in Dungannon, they are uncertain what to say or whether to comment at all, not wanting to further jeopardise their daughter's situation.

A brother of Michaella's has flown out to Lima along with the family's solicitor Peter Madden, who is trying to build up a defence team for the young Ulster woman.

The family are certain she will be exonerated.

Missionary priests based in Lima said that if transferred to Santa Monica prison, the notorious women's jail in Lima, they will find life extremely tough amid conditions described as "Spartan" at best.

The prison was built for just 250 women, but now houses more than 1,000 in filthy conditions.

Ominously, observers of Peruvian law warn that it could be up to a year before a trial gets under way.

If found guilty, the two young women face up to 25 years in prison.

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