Drug mules Michaella and Melissa are sent to 'worst' jail in Lima
The two convicted traffickers are on their way to the maximum-security Ancon 2
TEN months after being caught with €1.5m worth of cocaine between them, drug mules Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid have left Virgin di Fatima prison in the suburbs of Lima to sit out the rest of their 6.8 year sentence in Ancon Dos, or Ancon 2, a maximum-security facility two hours drive away in the desert north of the metropolis.
Built to an American prison model, it houses men on one side and women on the other. When I met the two girls late last year, they knew they would probably be shipped out there eventually.
"All the Western prisoners in Lima's prisons are getting shipped to Ancon 2, so I suppose we will too," Michaella told me. "We're the only Europeans here. The prisons are full with petty criminals. You can go to jail for stealing a wallet or getting caught with just one bag of cocaine here."
There are over 300 Europeans in Ancon 2, most of them drug mules, including a Northern Irish woman, Lillian Allen (48), who is serving an eight-year sentence after carrying bags for someone else through the airport.
Michaella said: "We'd rather stay here [Virgin di Fatima], it's a low-security prison and the people are friendly enough. There were phone booths in the meeting square and you could sit out and have coffee and tea from a kiosk selling sweets, chocolates and trinkets. We sat in the outdoor yard for three hours chatting and besides the imposing walls around us, we sat freely, left alone by the affable wardens."
The girls were filled with trepidation at the idea of moving. "I don't blame them," 'Claudine [not her real name] an ex-prisoner at Ancon Dos told me. "Of the three prisons in Lima, it's the worst. I spent six months of my two-and-a-half year sentence there and for the large part it was terrible."
Referring to foreign prisoners, Claudine said that the German government was humane towards its citizens held in prisons abroad.
"I can't say the same for the Americans. They don't look after their people. There's a general sense of 'lock 'em up and throw away the key'. It's their own fault, they made the mistakes, let them deal with it," she says.
"You live with eight people in one room, the toilets are holes in the ground, while the beds are made of cement. There is no real common area where you get to see women from other sections of the prison. The food is terrible and often has worms in it, so it's best not to eat it.
"I lost several dress sizes in weight being there. There is almost no natural light anywhere and sometimes they turn off the water for up to a week, so people can't wash."
She says it is highly policed so it's safe in terms of violence and crime amongst prisoners. That said, prostitution exists and drugs are freely bought and sold.
"Everything costs money so the girls will need money to survive. If they don't have money, they are in trouble."
Because mules are often in for the long term, funds can run out, which makes life very difficult.
If you get sick and you have to go to hospital, you have to pay for it too, she adds. The facilities aren't great either.
'Claudine' received €150 a month from her now-ex-husband and some extra money from a prisoners-abroad fund.
"The prisons are businesses and you have to pay for everything, whether it's toilet paper or your bed."
'Claudine' was caught trying to smuggle 3kg of cocaine out of Lima Airport nearly four years ago.
"It's the biggest, most stupid, ridiculous mistake of my life. I met some people who asked me to carry some drugs for money. I had no money at the time and they seemed like nice people, but they set me up. The authorities were waiting for me at the airport. I have no idea what I was thinking. But I've paid the price in Ancon 2.
"Muling is daft, stupid and dangerous, but sometimes people are set up or innocent, but they don't care."
"Once you are caught, you just go through the motions," another mule informed me.
"You spend two weeks in a holding cell, where you get fingerprinted and are made sign numerous documents," she said.
"It was terrible in there," Michaella informed me. "We hardly washed or ate and we had no Spanish, so we had no idea what was going on."
Brad Barker, president of the San Diego-based Halo Corporation, an expert on organised crime gangs, kidnappings, coercions and mules, told me there is no huge inquiry into who put you up to it.
"Hence the mules aren't the real criminals; the gangs who put them up to it are. They are just naive people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
He says the chances of the girls smuggling drugs for a clear cash reward are slim.
These girls are not criminal geniuses who devised the entire plan. From my experience, mules are victims, regardless of the fact that they changed their story along the way.
"It's very easy to flip someone by way of threat or reward. The cartels who run these operations are hugely powerful and have people working for them around the world. Their leaders make Pablo Escobar look like Mary Poppins.
"Their business is worth billions and mules are an integral part of it, especially the ones who are set up to get caught, allowing a bigger shipment to get through somewhere else."
But what about when they get to the airport? Why do the mules not just run up to the nearest police officer and tell them what's happening?
Melissa and Michaella said they were stopped as soon as they walked into the door at the airport.
"A sniffer dog walked right past me and didn't notice anything, then a few moments later a bunch of police came over to us. We were barely in the door," Melissa said.
Barker said: "I don't know what would have gone through their minds and I don't know what happened with them, but if you are in the care of a handler, you are not going to misbehave.
"They can leave mules by themselves safe in the knowledge that they won't seek help or rat – out of fear.
"Many of them use the Oz method, named after the Wizard of Oz, where they would tell you that they won't harm you, but a guy you can't see will."
Aside from everything else, informers get shot. It's a well-known fact, so the mules will always remain tight-lipped about who or what put them up to it, so they just sit out their time in prison, whether they were set up or not.
"Pleading innocent is not an option," Northern Irish woman Lillian Allen said in a recent TV interview.
"I've never pleaded innocence. You can't. You have to plead guilty for a shorter sentence," she said sobbing in front of the cameras. "I always hoped I'd never see anyone here from my own country, but I will help Michaella.
"For now, the girls' sentences are 6.8 years with no benefits, unless the law changes, so that's how it will be," says 'Claudine'.
The girls put in an application to sit out the rest of their sentences at home, but it is unclear if and when it will happen.
"The government is not likely to deviate on the law, so for now nothing will change until a different government is in place. They don't want to be seen making exceptions.
"I advise the girls to be on their best behaviour and take workshops and educate themselves. You get extra points for that. It's important to work," she says.
"I learnt how to sew handbags and wallets and I also did knitting classes.
"I'm still in Peru, trying to pay off my prison debt of over €2,000, despite leaving prison last year. I have to sell handbags to make a living here as I am not registered to work, so I get black market wages. I'm constantly living in fear too.
"My family at home doesn't have the money to fly me home or pay my fine, so I'm stuck living under the breadline," she says.
"Trying to make that kind of money will take years here. It's insane. It's what can happen to mules. Once you are out of prison, you aren't necessarily free. Some have parole and others have debts to pay off so they live miserable lives here until they can officially leave.
"It's a big price to pay and being a mule has completely and utterly destroyed my life."