Was Michaella McCollum Connolly set up in Peru drugs bust by Phil Collins' nephew?
The nephew of musician Phil Collins has been placed at the centre of the gang which allegedly forced a young Irish woman and her friend to carry €1.7m of cocaine out of Peru.
Philip Austin Collins (38), the nephew of the legendary pop star, is currently being held in Piedras Gordas Prison in the South American country.
Michaella McCollum Connolly (20), from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and Melissa Reid (19), from Glasgow in Scotland, are being held in custody in a Peruvian prison.
Speaking from police custody yesterday, Michaella said that the girls feared "we are not going home soon", despite insisting that they were coerced into carrying the 11.5kg of drugs after being held at gunpoint.
The girls reiterated that they were forced to transport the cocaine and were in fear of their lives when doing so.
The girls are scheduled to have their first appearance before a judge this Friday. According to Michaella the hearing will take place in the same anti-drugs unit they have been held in for the last eight days in the Peruvian capital.
The girls, who are in regular telephone contact with their families, remain in good spirits but said they were “dying for a hot cooked meal”. They are hopeful that they will soon have an opportunity to explain their version of events and clear their names.
“We were told the preliminary hearing will take place here,” confirmed Michaella, “and then it looks likely we will be transferred to a women’s prison.”
Michaella’s brother and lawyer are flying from Northern Ireland to Peru today, in order to liaise with the Peruvian lawyer they have hired to handle case.
Melissa Reid’s father William arrived in Lima last night and is due to meet with his daughter today.
Peruvian media have reported police suspicions of a link between the two women and the gang, which allegedly includes Philip Austin Collins.
The gang is said to have used British citizens as drugs mules in the past.
Mr Collins and two others were arrested in April 2012 for allegedly trying to smuggle €3.5m of cocaine out of Peru.
Mr Collins was released on bail in March of this year but was re-arrested two months later in Lima for allegedly breaching conditions.
Police at the time claimed he was planning to flee the country.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Sean Walsh, who has visited the women in Lima, said they were "worried, but well".
He said Peruvian police were concerned about the media attention surrounding the case.
"I got in by virtue of my collar and found them worried, but well. The officers have been compassionate with them but I sense that the police are biting back at the favourable media coverage," he added.
Archbishop Walsh said the onus would be on Michaella's legal team to prove she was coerced into carrying the drugs.
Michaella is expected to appear before prosecutors over the coming days. After she is formally charged she may be sent to Santa Monica women's prison on the outskirts of Lima.
Meanwhile, the women have been giving further details on how they say they were forced to take the drugs during a secret meeting.
Ms Reid and Ms McCollum Connolly said they were given the 24lb (11kg) of cocaine outside their hotel, the Hotel Colonial San Agustin in the capital Lima, the day before were due to fly back to Spain.
Speaking from inside police headquarters in Lima, Ms Reid told one newspaper: "I was the one who went to pick up the drugs outside our hotel.
"At that point I didn't know what was in the suitcase, drugs, guns or money, and we were like, 'we're not going to do it'. But they said, 'We've been watching you and you've got to do it'."
The pair, who deny drug trafficking allegations, claim they were ordered at gunpoint by Colombian gangsters to smuggle the drugs out of Lima.
Ms McCollum Connolly said: "I didn't realise drugs were so big here but it happens all the time. The police have said they see girls like us all the time. We've resigned ourselves to the fact that we're not going home soon and are doing jail time here."
The two women had been working on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where they say they were snared by a drug cartel, robbed of their passports and phones and followed as they travelled on separate flights from Spain to Peru.
Once in South America, they say they were ordered to carry the cocaine hidden inside food packets.
Ms McCollum Connolly's ex-boyfriend, Andreas Garcia, said that it was common for young people in Ibiza to be forced into dealing drugs by violent pushers - though there is no suggestion the women used drugs.
The 31-year-old, who lived on the island with Ms McCollum Connolly, told the Daily Mirror that traffickers would loiter near bars and nightclubs and get teenagers hooked on drugs before forcing them to become dealers and drug mules after they racked up large debts.
Mr Garcia, who works in Amsterdam Bar in San Antonio, told the newspaper: "I've seen British guys come into the bar to try and recruit girls. They get them hooked on coke, on all sorts of things, and then make them do terrible things.
"They become low-level dealers at first. The gangs use the girls who work in clubs and bars to sell drugs to punters. That's how it starts. In return they get money and drugs on credit."
Belfast Telegraph Digital