'Michaella, Peru, and the Drugs Run' - Ed Power reviews revealing RTE documentary
There has been a mixed response to the plight of Michaela McCollum, the Tyrone nightclub hostess turned drugs mule arrested last August as she tried to smuggle (along with an accomplice) nearly €2 million worth of cocaine out of Peru.
Though footage of the 20 year old being grilled by Lima customs officials, her smile that of a rabbit caught in a blinding spotlight, tugged at the heartstrings you couldn't help feeling astonished at her naivety.
Who walks up to an X-Ray machine at a South American airport with 11 kilos of cocaine in their suitcase confident of breezing through?
The scale of the Dungannon native's guilelessness was laid bare in the clunkily titled 'Michaella, Peru and The Drugs Run', a documentary which shadowed McCollum's older sister and mother as they traveled to Lima to visit Michaela early in her six and a half year jail sentence.
With Peruvian drug lords now the main suppliers of cocaine to Europe, we learned prisons in the impoverished nation have started to fill with naive Westerners (including 700 females), many of whom foolishly believed sneaking narcotics out of the country was a bit of a lark.
"They are young, without a job, looking for an adventure, wanting easy money," said one Peruvian law enforcer, suggesting that the women gulled into smuggling tend to be free living types seeking an easy payoff.
If the authorities appeared unsurprised that Michaela and Scottish companion Melissa Reid would be caught with a suitcase heaving with cocaine, back in Ireland her family were in disbelief.
Michaela's older sister Samantha seemed unable to come to grips with her sister's crime. "I will never judge her," she said, wiping back the tears. "I am not mad at her, not angry with her. I just miss her and love her. I want her home."
"Deep down we are having mental block we are trying to pretend she is away on holidays," added mother, Nora. "When we do see her in prison reality will hit home. "
The programme makers had uncovered some interesting new angles to the story. A Spanish drugs officer said that young women in Ibiza, where Michaela had worked as a hostess, were often befriended by men offering booze and drugs on a casual basis – only to later inform their victims they were in hock for thousands of euro. Either they magicked up the cash…or agreed to fly to South America to take delivery of a consignment of cocaine.
Later Colonel Tito Perez of the Peruvian Drugs Unit suggested that Michaela's links to the drugs trade were peripheral and that it was that Melissa Reid who may have had connections to cocaine gangs. “I think it was Melissa who directed her to come to Peru but on the orders of the drug traffickers.”
Missing from the drama was the central character. There was lots of old footage of Michaela, testimonies from family and friends as to her ambitions to break into modeling. And yet she was a curiously blank protagonist: we never came close to understanding what could prompt a young woman with so much going for her to be so reckless with her future. She was obviously exceedingly gullible and ruinously short sighted –but there was surely more to the story than that?
While providing a fascinating insight into the 'feminisation' of drugs smuggling the documentary ultimately failed to shed light on this key mystery: why would a nicely brought up girl from Dungannon throw it all away in a foolhardy get-rich-quick scheme?
It was tempting to conclude McCollum was motivated by a mixture of naivety and avarice (her payoff for delivering the drugs would be in the region of €5000, we discovered). Understandably still trying to process what had happened, her family were unable to offer any insight - where 'Michaella, Peru and The Drugs Run' fell down was in allowing their credulousness dominate the narrative.