Belfast Telegraph

Peru drug arrest: We shouldn't judge Michaella simply on her age or looks

Gail Walker

Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid were part of the drugs trade. The facts are clear. They flew from their homes in Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively to holiday in Ibiza, took a flight to Peru, boarded an internal flight to a notorious drug region and were caught with 34 packages of drugs in their luggage at Lima airport.

But what is in question was their motivation: were they drug mules acting under duress and fearing the worst for their loved ones if they didn't comply with the wishes of an evil drug gang? Or were they willing participants, dazzled by the thought of easy money and – let's face it – illicit glamour?

A simple question but one impossible for us to answer.

I don't know. You don't know.

The only people who 'know' are Michaella, Melissa, the other members of the drug gang and possibly the Peruvian police and the odd brilliant criminal psychologist.

But that doesn't stop us – individuals, the media, the torture chamber that is the internet – from drawing conclusions from the flimsiest of evidence.

Ibiza? Hmmm ... that's rum. A couple of party girls. Even more damning, "finding work as a hostess". Not to mention some of those modelling pics. Nope. Doesn't look good. Of course, no mention of the thousands upon thousands of young people who go partying and return home bleary-eyed and brimming with intensely boring anecdotes but essentially none the worse for wear.

Ah, but there's worse. I mean, just look at them. Or rather just look at Michaella and that bun which seems to be her main obsession rather than the prospect of 25 years in – if you are to believe reports – a hellhole prison. And smiling when arrested! That shows one tough wee cookie.

Except we should remind ourselves that the tough wee cookie is 20-years-old. Only 20. I'm sure there isn't one of us who didn't do a stupid or foolish thing at 20 and to this day blushes with embarrassment at the mere thought of it. (And no, I don't mean drug smuggling is a stupid or foolish thing. I mean sporting an odd hairstyle and failing to have the appropriate facial gestures for the tabloids.)

For all the 'world exclusives' and wild speculation, there's little doubt that no matter whether the 'Peru Two' were willing partners in drug smuggling or young girls in fear of their lives, their first big crime was falling in with the wrong crowd.

That is not to excuse them. I'm sure most of us would have the self-protective radar to avoid dodgy blokes from London and Liverpool. But not all of us. And I suspect they're by no means the only 20-year-olds who would have been led astray.

Ibiza. Partying. Men who dabble in drugs. Sure, they could deal with it. Until, of course, they couldn't.

But, really, what sort of society are we when the plight of Michaella and Melissa raises not anger, concern or much sympathy but instead malice, scorn and ridicule? Since their arrest comment boards have been filled with a sneering viciousness. From the shockingly vacuous – do you know where I could buy Michaella's leather jacket? – to the relentless 'proof' that the girls were chavs, the venom pours forth. Incredibly, there's even a photo of two children apparently at a fancy dress contest kitted out exactly like the two suspects, complete with leather jacket and bun. Funny? Supportive? I don't think so.

What is happening is that we are judging on appearances – and not on whether Michaella (and most of the hatred seems to directed at the Dungannon girl) and Melissa are legally guilty. No, they are their own crime. They are young. They are provincial. They do not look like the most sophisticated of young women.

Worse, they are being held up as examples of all that is 'wrong with this country'. Why? Both come from what appear to be loving families that have come out battling for their daughters, flying half-way round the world to carry an extra mattress into their cell.

But what do facts matter when there are huge generalised statements to be made?

This is not to say that Michaella and Melissa are innocent. I don't know. (Neither do you.) But I do know they are a long, long way from home, engulfed by horrifying circumstances they could never have predicted. Northern Ireland can seem dismal enough at times, but how Michaella must long to see Dungannon again now.

Until we have their evidence in open court, we have no right to judge them – especially not about how they look.

And being 20 is not a crime.

Belfast Telegraph


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