Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Michaella McCollum: Telling the truth would be one way of gaining our sympathies

Santa Monica Prison Peru
Santa Monica Prison Peru

Michaella McCollum's tear-streaked account of life in a Peru prison following her conviction for smuggling drugs is a clear attempt to gain public sympathy.

But the brutal truth is that, no matter how heartrending the story, it won't work.

Why? Because she's still maintaining her claims of innocence in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

The vast majority of people – including the Peruvian police and judiciary – simply do not buy it.

They don't believe she was forced to carry drugs. They do believe that Michaella and her fellow mule Melissa Reid smuggled cocaine for cash entirely of their own volition.

And that's what puts a check on any real sympathy for the two young women.

Nobody likes to be taken for a fool.

There's a strong sense out there that, whether through greed, naivety or sheer ignorance, they brought it all on themselves.

It's not a coincidence that the campaign fund set up to pay Michaella's legal fees only raised just over £500.

There's no doubt that conditions in Lima's Virgen de Fatima jail would try the stamina of the most hardened lifer back home, and Michaella certainly doesn't spare any of the nasty details.

Blocked toilets, cockroaches, dirty drinking water and a system that means you have to pay for everything, even the privilege of sitting in a chair, mean that daily life is an endurance test.

The food seems to be a particular trial for the two women, neither of whom speak Spanish.

There are bits of hair in the rice and beans, they say, and – bizarrely enough – they describe how they point to their own chests when they are given chicken feet, to signal that they only eat breast of chicken.

It all sounds horrendous, but given the circumstances you'd think that they might consent to swallow a bit of wing or thigh if pressed.

Chicken fillets were for the days before they decided to throw their lot in with the global drugs trade.

Yet you can't help feeling a certain amount of compassion for Michaella. She is very young – only 20 years old – and she's sitting in a squalid prison 6,000 miles from home.

Reacting to the prospect of being moved to a different jail to serve out her term, Michaella says: "I actually wouldn't mind going to Santa Monica prison... I heard they even have a Christmas party."

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel pity for the former Ibiza dancer, longing for the dubious joys of a party in jail.

The best thing that Michaella McCollum could do, if she really wants the sympathy of people back home in Northern Ireland, is to tell the truth.

You can't be both guilty and not guilty.

By sticking to her highly improbable story, she is alienating potential supporters.

Serving a sentence in a Peruvian prison is a hard way to grow up, and one that you wouldn't wish on any young person.

But one of the ways you know you have finally reached maturity is when you start taking responsibility for your own actions, and the consequences they bring.

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