Belfast Telegraph

Michaella's mum: It's like a nightmare

By Lesley-Anne McKeown and Paul Ward

The mother of an Irish model being held on suspicion of drug trafficking in Peru has spoken of her distress.

Michaella McCollum Connolly, 20, and Melissa Reid are due to appear in court tomorrow accused of attempting to smuggle an estimated £1.5 million worth of cocaine out of South America.

Today her exhausted mother Nora said: "The situation is terrible for everyone."

Ms McCollum Connolly, a photography student and former nightclub hostess was arrested last week alongside pal Melissa Reid, 19, from just outside Glasgow while trying to board a flight from Lima to Madrid.

The pair claim they were forced to carry bags in their luggage and were unaware they contained drugs.

At the family home in Dungannon, Co Tyrone Mrs McCollum said her family was going through a difficult ordeal.

She added: "At the moment we don't know anything. We don't know what is happening at all."

The family's parish priest Dean Colum Curry said they were struggling to come to terms with the plight but were trying to stay positive.

He declared: "It is just like a nightmare for them. They are at a loss as to what they can do.

"The family feel almost overwhelmed. They feel intimidated with all the callers to the door and feel a bit like prisoners in their own home. They are afraid to say anything that might jeopardise the situation.

"It is very hard to know who to trust because the system is so corrupt and that makes the situation even more worrying for them.

"But they are still hopeful."

The National Police of Peru said they found more than 24lb of cocaine - thought to be worth around £1.5 million (1.7 million euro) - hidden in food in the luggage of the two women.

Ms Reid's father William told reporters at his home in Lenzie, East Dunbartonshire, that the family are going through a "living nightmare" and have not slept since they found out.

He said his daughter is "bright, beautiful, bubbly and intelligent, just like her Facebook page shows."

He said he had a very brief phone conversation with his daughter and told her to be strong and not to get too emotional.

The family are being advised by the Foreign Office but Mr Reid said they are "not getting much information".

He said there is "no way" his daughter would have gone along willingly with a plan to smuggle drugs.

He feels his daughter may have been "groomed" by somebody who she may have thought was a friend she made on holiday.

The 53-year-old said the family have no plans to go to Peru at the moment and fears going out could actually put his daughter in "greater danger".

Meanwhile, video footage has emerged of the two girls being questioned at the airport.

In the online video, Ms Reid is questioned by a police interviewer and is heard to say: "I was forced to take these bags in my luggage."

When asked if she knew they contained drugs, the 19-year-old from Lenzie in East Dunbartonshire, said: "I did not know that."

Ms McCollum Connolly identifies herself and describes her nationality as Irish.

Both girls left home for separate holidays in Ibiza earlier this summer.

Last week, Ms McCollum Connolly was at the centre of a Facebook and online social media appeal after her family said they had not had any contact with her for 12 days. The first they heard was when she turned up in Peruvian police custody.

Ms Reid's mother, Debra, told reporters she thought her daughter was in Ibiza with friends and had no idea she had travelled to Peru.

Ms Reid flew to Ibiza in June and had posted numerous pictures of herself with friends on the Spanish holiday island on her Facebook page. Her last post was on July 21.

The women are said to be in custody in a police station in Lima. Foreigners arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking in Peru can remain in holding cells in the anti-drugs police headquarters for 15 days while officers investigate.

Suspects are then either charged or released; if they are charged they will be transferred to prison to await a court hearing.

Lead investigator Major Manuel Siclla told the Scottish Sun: "They are OK, but are obviously worried about their families and what the future holds for them.

"Like anyone else involved drug smuggling, they will be tried and face long prison sentences if convicted.

"We take this problem very seriously here in Peru and courts are very strict about the enforcement of the law."

The Foreign Office in London confirmed it was helping a British national. The Irish Embassy in Mexico City is also helping Ms McCollum Connolly and her family.

It is understood the pair are being held separately in maximum-security holding cells.

A guard in Lima told the Daily Mirror that they had refused to eat or drink, and they were "terrified and emotional".

Michael Russell, a retired consul general in Lima, told the paper: "The jails are pretty dour and horrible. It's all a matter of money. You have to buy your space and food.

If you don't have money, you suffer quite a lot."

He said the pair, if found guilty, could be sent to Lima's Santa Monica de Chorrillos women's prison.

Peru is thought to have surpassed Colombia as the world's biggest producer of cocaine after United Nations figures showed that the latter reduced its area under coca cultivation by 25% last year.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the area under coca crop cultivation in Colombia fell from 64,000 hectares in 2011, to 48,000 by the end of 2012

The figures came after the UNODC also revealed that the cultivation of coca bush, which provides the raw material for cocaine, had dropped for the second year running - falling by about 7% in 2012. The previous year saw a drop of 12% in cultivation.

It placed Peru's crop at 240 square miles (62,500 hectares) in 2011.

Figures for 2012 are yet to be released by the UNODC, but last year's figures showed that in 2011 Peru's crop stood at around 62,500 - an increase of around 5.2% on the previous year.

Prison standards

Amnesty International has raised concerns about prison conditions in Peru.

Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said overcrowding is an acute issue and facilities fall far short of international standards.

He said: "There are almost 50,000 prisoners in Peru for fewer than 30,000 prison places - many prisoners report having to sleep in corridors.

"The number of foreign nationals held in Peru has been growing steadily in the last few years, due to an increase in arrests for cocaine trafficking out of the country.

"Inmates have very limited access to medical care, with prisoners having to pay for many basic services, including sufficient food and drinking water, according to some reports."

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