Belfast Telegraph

Michaella: We were held at gunpoint by Columbian drug smugglers

BY AISHLING PHELAN, CORMAC MCQUINN, ADRIAN RUTHERFORD AND HANNAH POPHAM

The Northern Irish woman at the centre of an alleged £1.5m cocaine trafficking deal has reportedly said she was held at gunpoint and coerced into smuggling the drugs.

Michaella McCollum Connolly (20), who is from Dungannon in Tyrone but worked in Belfast, is currently in a jail in Peru after being stopped at an airport in the country last week with a friend - Scottish teenager Melissa Reid - where cocaine was discovered in their luggage.

However, an Irish-American bishop who visited the pair has said the women told him they were forced into carrying the cocaine in their luggage through Lima Airport.

''Okay since you've heard it from another source, they told me that there were a group of Colombians actually took them at gunpoint and threatened them,"  said Archbishop of Lima Sean Walsh.

"They held them in [Ibiza] for a while and they took them to Morrocco.

"Now I don't know how that happened and I don't know how they got over to Peru, there was no direct flight from Morocco. They had to go through Spain probably.'

"If they have been coerced or threated as I think they are going to argue, then the fact that they physically had it in their possession may not mean that they were intentionally or willingly doing it if they were forced with threats on their life then they might not have gone through with this,’’ he added, speaking to Joe Duffy's Liveline this afternoon.

The archbishop said he expected that the girls could be held in prison before trial for up to two years.

He said the officers at the holding jail do not speak English but feel sorry for the two girls.

He said he believed their story on how they were coerced by Columbians would be "a credible defence".

The archbishop said the girls should not fear for their personal safety.   ‘‘Once they are arrested they should not be concerned about their personal safety.’’

He believes the girls should provide any information or evidence they have to the authorities in Peru.

‘‘If they sent the Peruvian authorities specific information or even the Irish authorities’ concerning people who got them involved in this, then they might try to retaliate,’’ he said.

‘‘Sometimes I think that if all people arrested here would turn in evidence to authorities it would make it easier to fight this drug trafficking, he added.’’

Meanwhile, video has emerged of the two women upon the discovery of cocaine in their luggage at the airport.

Michaella (20) who appears petrified can be heard telling an interviewer that she is Irish.

Looking nervous and standing beside her pal Melissa Reid, Michaella says her name before confirming her name and nationality.

British media are reporting that both girls are from the UK but Michaella can be heard telling investigators that she is Irish.

The latest piece of video also shows custom officers opening bags of porridge and jelly with massive amounts of cocaine concealed inside.

Michaella and her friend Melissa are "frightened" and "devastated" following their arrest but are expected to protest their innocence in front of a Peruvian judge tomorrow.

Archbisohop Walsh said: "My personal feeling with these girls? They really and truly have been set up."

He has also spoken to Michaella's worried mother Norah back home in Ireland, in a bid to reassure the family that she is being well treated.

Images of the anxious-looking young women were accompanied by shots of the food packets, which police claim were used to conceal cocaine in their luggage.

Familiar brands such as Quaker allegedly hid packets of the drug, with another image showing a purported haul of 5.78kg being weighed on a scale.

Peruvian police claim Irish passport-holder Michaella was stopped with almost 5.8kg of cocaine in her luggage. A similar amount was alleged to have been found in Ms Reid's baggage.

In an accompanying video, Ms Reid says she was "forced to take these bags" in her luggage.

She denied knowing anything about the drugs.

A police officer gets Melissa to confirm her name and nationality, before asking to where she is travelling.

Melissa: Madrid, Majorca

Officer: Yes. Which airline?

Melissa: Air Europa.

Officer: You knew it contained these bags?

Melissa: I was forced to take these bags in my luggage.

Officer: You knew it contained drugs?

Melissa: I did not know that.

Officer: Which is your bag?

Melissa: That's mine.

Michaella is now being held in the Santa Monica women's prison after being arrested on suspicion of trying to smuggle around cocaine out of the South American country.

If charged and convicted of the illicit cocaine smuggling charges, the women who travelled independently to Ibiza to work for the summer, could face sentences of between 10-25 years in one of the harshest prison regimes in the world.

Archbishop Walsh said that when he visited the women, "they were weepy and upset".

"They are embarrassed at how everything has affected their families back home. They are devastated by that but I assured them they need to stay strong," said Archbishop Walsh.

"They are due to appear in a court on Wednesday when they will be interrogated by a judge.

"They believe they were set up and they will use that as a defence."

According to the 'La Republica' newspaper, the National Police of Peru "said that Michaella's nerves gave her away when she arrived to the desk", while 'El Ojo' (The Eye) reported that police "observed both girls become nervous in the presence of airport sniffer dogs."

But the former Irish consul of Peru, Michael Russell – who is set to visit Michaella in prison today – has also said that he believes their arrest could be "a set-up".

He said the girls could have been used as a "distraction" to allow dealers smuggle more drugs through the airport.

Former Irish consul Mr Russell last night said: "As soon as they got into the airport, they were arrested. It could have been the case that the main drug dealer described the people to the police in the airport."

Michaella was initially feared missing in Ibiza by her family, who last week sparked off a massive social media campaign to locate her.

She left Belfast city in June to be a summer worker in Ibiza's bars and clubs. But it later emerged that the nightclub hostess had been arrested and detained in Peru.

Her distraught family are originally from Co Monaghan but based in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and are still trying to come to terms with the dramatic events of last week.

Michaella's sister Stephanie hit back at hurtful taunts that appeared online.

She urged people to "get their facts right", and wrote on Facebook: "Her family have not made a statement, they are the only ones that know the truth".

It also emerged that just six months ago, the photography student and part-time dancer was working at a trade fair for older people in Cork.

Brian McCabe of the Senior Times, who helped organise the event, recalled Michaella working at the show, but did not know any more about her.

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