Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Drug mules or not ... why I feel so sorry for these girls

I feel sorry for the girl. Whatever Michaella McCollum Connolly has got herself involved in (and in fairness to her, we should wait until the facts are completely clear before rushing to judgment), she is only 20 years old.

She's behind bars in far off Peru facing serious charges which could see her spending a fair whack of her youth in what's been described as a grim hellhole of a prison.

God help her.

God help her family who have gone through a couple of weeks of anguish worried out of their minds that she may have been abducted – or worse – before they were eventually informed she'd been arrested.

"We hadn't heard from her in 12 days," her mother told one paper, "and now this ..."

In those few sparse words Nora Connolly sums up one of those parental nightmares you don't wake up from. One that twists off down a dark alleyway you could never have imagined. And this is truly the stuff of nightmares.

In our patronising, superior European way I think we sometimes exaggerate the hell-holeishness of other country's custody arrangements.

In media reports other places' prisons are always dank, dark disease ridden, dangerous.

But by all accounts, conditions in the prison in Lima where Michaella and her friend are currently being held do sound pretty dire.

If convicted the two girls – Melissa Reid from Scotland is just 19 – may be sent to the Santa Monica prison in a place called Chorrillos. Newspaper reports describe it as grossly overcrowded and filthy. Safe to assume, Hydebank it ain't.

And whatever eventually transpires, there will be no speedy Get Out of Jail card for the girls anytime soon. At best, moves by the embassy staff working on their behalf may help improve the conditions they face in the immediate future. Some might say, of course, they deserve all they get. In fact, many have already said just that in online debate.

But Kayla, as she is apparently known by her family, and Melissa do not strike me as key lynchpins of the global drugs industry. We're told they were caught trying to board a plane with several kilos of not terribly well disguised cocaine in their bags. This in an airport known to be one of the most efficient in the world at spotting and scooping drugs mules.

The drugs trade is vile and damnable and those who profit knowingly from it deserve every condemnation. But are these two girls really players in that trade? Or just pawns?

They're old enough to know better some will argue. And in their Facebook pictures there is an undeniable flavour of youthful swagger.

But how many of us at 19 and 20 were really as savvy as we imagined? At 20 you think yourself invulnerable and clued-in. Others – older, wiser, often more cunning – only see the girlish gullibility.

I don't know the full facts of this case, of course. Anymore than anyone else. And I don't argue Michaella's case just because she's from here – one of our own. But you wouldn't wish what has happened to her family on your worst enemy. Worrying about their girl imprisoned on grave charges half a world away.

Reading those countless stories about the jail conditions ... the girls weeping hysterically ... refusing food ... agonising about the future they may face.

God help them all. I really do feel sorry for them.

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