Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Unlikely traffickers claim they're victims... but now the hard part is proving it

Michaella (left) and Melissa are paraded in front of cameras by police after their arrest in Peru
Michaella (left) and Melissa are paraded in front of cameras by police after their arrest in Peru

It is at least conceivable that when a sniffer dog approached the two young women at Lima's airport, their fear was tinged with relief.

Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid, both aged 20, were stopped as they checked in for a flight from the Peruvian capital to Madrid. Drug enforcement officers found over 11kg of cocaine in their luggage. But under questioning, the pair stuck to a remarkable and terrifying story.

Ms McCollum and Ms Reid told reporters they had been conscripted by a "shady Cockney character" while on holiday in Ibiza. Both were whisked to Peru under duress, chaperoned by South American gangsters.

The women, who say they had never met previously, were ordered to collect a shipment of cocaine from the tourist town Cuzco, to pose as backpackers, and to smuggle the drugs back to Spain. If they refused, they claim, the cartel threatened violence not only against them but against their families.

Asked to name a South American country steeped in the drugs trade, most people would pick Colombia or Mexico. And yet, says Professor Paul Gootenberg, author of the book Andean Cocaine, "this case is emblematic of the dramatic recent change in the structure of the cocaine trade. For the last two years, Peru has been the world's largest producer of cocaine. That seems to be the pattern that will continue for a while."

Which may explain why Peru now has 1,648 foreigners in its jails for drug trafficking offences, more than any other South American country. Almost 250 suspected drug mules were arrested at Lima's Jorge Chavez International in 2012 and according to UK charity Prisoners Abroad, there are now 37 British citizens in Peruvian jails, most of them men.

The Peruvian prison system is running at more than 200% of its capacity. Lima's notorious Sarita Colonia prison was built for 50 inmates, yet houses more than 2,800 men. The majority were incarcerated for trafficking offences, and many of them are European.

If caught carrying less than 10kg of cocaine, the sentence is a standard six years and eight months. More than 10kg, and they face 25 years. How that law is applied could prove crucial to Ms McCollum and Ms Reid's case.

Within Peru, there is widespread speculation about government corruption, and several politicians have been arrested or accused of entanglement with the drugs trade. Under pressure to produce small victories in the war on drugs they often pick on easy targets – low-level couriers like Ms McCollum and Ms Reid – rather than on the cartels.

Leeds University criminologist Dr Fleetwood has studied the use of women as drug mules, she says most cocaine smuggling is conducted by men who do it to get paid. Ms McCollum and Ms Reid are atypical traffickers, and may indeed have fallen victim to a cartel's threats, but such claims rarely stand up in court. "Traffickers are usually very careful to leave no trace of threats and so drug mules will almost never have any evidence to support their claims," says Dr Fleetwood. "It will be very difficult for them successfully to claim their innocence. They may have little choice but to plead guilty in the hope that remorse might count in their favour."

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