Irish News

Friday 1 August 2014

Michaella will be locked up with Peru's worst killers

Published 23/08/2013|04:00

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Michaella McCollum Connolly has made frontpage news in Peru, with the story gaining nationwide attention
Michaella McCollum Connolly (L) and Melissa Reid attend court at the Justice Court of Callao
Michaella McCollum Connolly (L) and Melissa Reid attend court at the Justice Court of Callao

MICHAELLA McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid will be locked up in the Virgen de Fatima jail, which houses some of Peru's most notorious killers, while they await a trial date.

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Monaghan-born Michaella is being presented as a glamorous drugs mule in the Peruvian media.

She is proving frontpage news in the local tabloid press, which described the Irish girl who "looks like the singer Amy Winehouse."  After their court appearance, the local 'El Trome' newspaper focused entirely on Michaella.

It carried a large picture of her leaving court under the headline: "Mules to jail" and the two women are are repeatedly referred to as "burriers" – or mules.

The article notes that 112 mules are caught in Jorge Chavez airport every year – but the girls' story of being forced to carry the drugs by an armed gang has gained massive attention.

The pair face up to two years in the prison which is one hour north of Lima.

They are being held on drugs charges after being stopped at Jorge Chavez Airport on August 6 while trying to board a flight for Madrid with 11kg of cocaine worth €1.7m in their bags.

Ms McCollum Connolly was yesterday led out of the Palace of Justice in the port city of Callao with her travelling companion, Glaswegian Melissa Reid.

The pair, both 20, were expected to be taken to a modern prison but instead were taken to Lima’s Virgen de Fatima jail, where former prisoners say bullying and prostitution as a form of survival were common.

Prison bosses admitted Elena Iparraguirre, the wife of terrorist Abimael Guzman and more than 20 other convicted terrorists had been sent to a ‘closed wing’ at the jail, but said last night they had been moved again.

The jail was at the centre of a scandal three years ago when it emerged seven former military chiefs convicted of murder and secret abductions were serving time in the womens' jail instead of a maximum-security mens' prison.

They included an army colonel convicted of the torture and forced disappearance of a youngster and two former colleagues convicted of the murder of seven villagers.

The pair, both 20, claim to have been kidnapped and forced into carrying the drug by gangsters.

The prison system in Peru is operating at 200pc over capacity, and prisoners often sleep in packed dormitories or in corridors.

VIOLENCE

Violence and bullying are rife , food is extremely poor and clean water has to be bought.

The women will be encouraged to take part in activities including joining the choir and entering beauty competitions.

Officials said the two had confessed to investigators that they knew there were drugs in their suitcases.

However, they insist they were forced to carry the cocaine by an armed gang.

A spokesman for the court said: "Both foreign citizens, although they claimed they had received threats to make them take the drugs, admitted they knew there were drugs in their luggage and didn't warn the authorities.

"For that reason and for others they were remanded in custody. Under article 296 of our penal code, both women could receive a prison sentence of between eight and 15 years."

Ms Reid's father, William, who is in Peru, has said: "I can only go by what I have been firmly told by the girls. Their stories are very tight, very consistent, with a lot of detail."

Ex-congresswoman Nancy Obregon, accused of links to the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru, was the most recent high-profile prisoner sent to Virgen de Fatima before the two British women.

She was arrested on terrorism and drug trafficking charges in July along with eight other members of her family after she was caught on tape allegedly discussing drug deals with an alleged trafficker.

Former prisoners have said prostitution is a form of survival for many of the poorer female inmates, who can’t afford food.

Charity Prisoners Abroad said people in Peru’s jails often had to sleep on floors, in corridors or in toilet areas because of overcrowding in prisons, with many at 200 per cent over capacity.

At a public hearing on Wednesday they were told they could face a wait of up to three years before their case goes to trial. They were also told it was unlikely they would be granted bail.

Meanwhile, a list the two girls gave to William Reid of things they would like in jail has emerged.

It includes basics such as water, milk, sugar, bread and water - but also items such as Pringles, Oreos, croissants, hair removal cream and a 32FF sports bra.

By Claire Murphy  and Gerard Couzens

Irish Independent

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