Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Peru suspects 'face formal charges'

Melissa Reid, front, and Michaella McCollum, are escorted to a court to be formally charged for drug trafficking in Lima, Peru (AP)

Two women arrested on suspicion of trying to smuggle cocaine worth £1.5 million out of Peru are expected to be charged today, according to prosecutors.

It is believed Michaella McCollum, 20, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, and Melissa Reid, 20, from Glasgow, will then be taken to prison to await trial, a spokeswoman for the prosecutors' office said.

The pair have spent the last two weeks in custody over the drug trafficking allegations and yesterday underwent medical checks ahead of the expected transfer to prison, the Associated Press reported.

Peruvian police said they found around 24lb of cocaine hidden inside food packages as the women attempted to board a flight from Lima to Madrid.

The women, who both deny the allegations and say they were forced to carry the bags by armed men, are expected to enter not guilty pleas.

If refused bail, the women face up to three years in jail before a trial.

But yesterday f urther questions about the two women's version of events were raised following the emergence of photographs that allegedly show them posing on a balcony and on a beach with glasses of beer days before they were arrested at Lima airport.

The pair say they were told to take photos of themselves at tourist spots to make it look like they were friends travelling together, the Daily Mail said.

Ms Reid's father William Reid, who has flown to Peru to be with his daughter, agreed the photos were ambiguous, but told the newspaper: "I want to know who took that picture of them on their balcony. Was it taken by a third person or by a minder, and who was drinking the beer?

"That wasn't Melissa's beer in the photo because I have never in my entire life seen her drink beer. She drinks a lot of water and, if she is drinking, it would be vodka."

He added: "I believe the trip to the beach was part of a set-up that they asked them to smile to build up a portrayal of them as happy holidaymakers.

"Melissa said they had been told by the men that they weren't smiling enough in the pictures and they told them to look happier.

"I can only go by what I have been firmly told by the girls. The two girls' stories are very tight, very consistent, with a lot of detail and they seem to be telling the truth, as far as I can gauge."

He added that Ms Reid had never shown an interest in going to Peru, and was already on her "dream holiday", saying: "To me, that suggests she was not there willingly."

Both women travelled separately to the party island of Ibiza in search of work this summer.

Before news of the arrests broke, the family of Ms McCollum, a photography student and former nightclub hostess, had launched an internet campaign, fearing she was missing.

Meanwhile, a senior Spanish police officer said he did not believe they had been acting under duress.

First Sergeant Alberto Arian Barilla, head of the Ibiza police unit responsible for countering organised crime, told the BBC: "In my experience, I don't think these two girls were forced to do this because - particularly when you go to South America - you need to pass several controls.

"The first thing you do is go to the passport control and say 'listen, this is what is happening to me'. The policeman will react so I don't think they were forced."

Ms McCollum's lawyer, Peter Madden, denied a variety of media reports that had emerged about his client alleging involvement with drugs.

"Michaella McCollum did not owe any money to any drugs dealer, she was not and is not involved in the drugs trade, she has no criminal record, she has never been in trouble with the police in her life," he said.

"She was not seen on video carrying drugs, as was alleged in one newspaper, she was carrying a handbag, it was her handbag, it was pretty obvious it wasn't drugs, but that was the report.

"She was not out shopping in Lima and spending a lot of money, that didn't happen."

Mr Madden said the women had been kept in harsh conditions but had been treated well.

"They are fairly tough conditions, there's not an awful lot to eat there, but she's been treated fairly well by the police and by the people in the police centre," he said.

The pair were pictured being escorted by officers from the National Police anti-drug headquarters for their medical examinations.

Ms Reid, who was wearing a green jumper, appeared to be handcuffed as she was helped into a waiting vehicle.

Wearing a black leather jacket and t-shirt, Ms McCollum stood behind, also under guard.

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