Truth is revealed in crime dossier
Brazen McCollum posed for joke pictures with police before she was caught with drugs, writes Adam Cullen in Peru
Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30
A dossier compiled by prosecutors in Peru shows photographs of drugs mule Michaella McCollum and her accomplice Melissa Reid brazenly posing for selfies with local riot police in Lima - just a couple of days before they began their ill-fated drugs run with €2m of cocaine secreted in their luggage.
The photographs downloaded by investigators from their Blackberry phones - supplied to them by the shadowy drugs lord behind the narcotics-smuggling operation - nail the lie that the two women were sick with nerves in the days before they tried to board a plane with luggage stuffed with drugs, as the Tyrone woman claimed in her controversial RTE interview.
Rather they show the two women to be both shameless and bold as they posed for 'joke' pictures with stern-faced law-enforcement officers.
Less than 72 hours after the photographs, the pair were attempting to hoodwink airport police by transporting a huge consignment of narcotics from Lima to Madrid.
Other photographs show that the two women enjoyed their time in Peru. They are shown laughing and smiling as they enjoyed the sites around Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel and World Heritage Site that is a must-see attraction for tourists visiting the Andes.
Drug mules and other criminals sometimes pose for holiday snaps to provide some sort of cover that they are genuine tourists if they are stopped by authorities.
In her controversial RTE interview, broadcast last Sunday, Ms McCollum said that the night before she and Ms Reid smuggled the drugs she became worried and got sick with nerves.
"The night before, that's when it became a reality and we had to pack our cases. . . I felt sick. . . sick with nerves . . . sick with worry.
"I remember getting sick . . . standing in the airport, knowing that I'm doing something wrong . . . I didn't know how to walk away," she said.
The images of a confident, smiling and shameless pair clearly enjoying their 'free' holiday in South America - part of the investigation files compiled by Peruvian prosecutors and downloaded from the phones supplied by criminal associates - appear to tell a different story.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against the pair is that they were caught on CCTV, visiting one of Peru's top drug dealers.
The women met with the notorious drug gangster at his plush apartment in an upmarket area of the capital Lima - ironically, not far from where the Tyrone woman is now enjoying freedom.
Interpol and immigration officers will monitor Michaella McCollum during her remaining time in Peru, the state prosecutor has also revealed
Chief public prosecutor for drugs Sonia Medina has said the 23-year-old will be watched while she serves out her parole.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent from her office in Lima, Ms Medina stressed that neither McCollum or her accomplice Melissa Reid, 23, were victims in any way, adding that they were well aware of what they had done.
The prosecutor, who receives constant death threats from some of South America's most notorious criminals, added that McCollum should have been made to serve her full sentence.
"These girls are not a major case for us. It is one of thousands we have on our books. At the moment, it is one of 93,000 (cases) my office is handling.
"That being said, what they have done, and many others like them, is far-reaching and very serious. They have knowingly contributed to an illegal operation that affects every member of this state and other countries.
"The drug trade in Peru damage all. It damages democracy through corruption. It infects politics, law and order - all fabrics of society.
"It is hurting our exchequer with the vast amounts of money-laundering, draining resources from our citizens.
"No matter how small of a cog, the girls, the models, they have contributed to this," she said.
"You can say they are stupid, you can say they were naive and young, but the bottom line is they knew exactly what they were doing and they were going to be very well paid for it," added the embattled public servant, who has worked in her role for 14 years.
Her department is currently based in a former luxury hotel that once belonged to a drug baron.
Seized by the state a number of years ago, the building is falling into disrepair as the government cannot afford its upkeep.
Ms Medina's bodyguard was shot dead in February last year as he shopped in Lima. The incident, police believe, was intended to send a message.
The prosecutor went on to note that McCollum and Reid, did not have any argument after an investigation found that the cocaine they had been carrying was linked with a top Peruvian drug dealer.
Ms Medina said the duo unwittingly identified the man, known as 'Uncle Charlie', when they visited his apartment in Lima.
She said this "maybe" posed a threat to their safety but added that this was unlikely, with officers from Interpol and the immigration service watching the former photography student.
Ms Media noted that Interpol's interest stemmed mainly from the dancers interaction with the "very famous" drug dealer.
"All the time, we knew they were lying," said Ms Medina, "we knew all of these stories about being kidnapped were nonsense."
McCollum, an aspiring model and photography student from Dungannon, was released on parole at 5pm last Thursday after serving two years and three months of her six-years and eight-month sentence.
She was freed under new legislation on early release that was introduced last year.
In a concession that was not previously offered to drug mules, the two young women were allowed to work or study in exchange for days off their sentences.
"If you work for five days, you will get one day off," said Ms Medina.
"Because of corruption, it is not always the fairest method. Your work days are logged in a book by prison staff, which is then presented to a judge.
"You can work extra days or not work at all and just pay for them from guards in the prison. In effect, it's a way of buying your impunity."
A judicial process will now determine what, if any, conditions are attached to McCollum's parole.
It had been reported that moves were being made to repatriate her to Northern Ireland, but sources said this would probably not happen until the end of the year.
Reid, from Lenzie, near Glasgow, is still in Ancon Dos, as she has petitioned for a transfer to Scotland, where she will serve the rest of her sentence, rather than take advantage of parole in Peru.
Police uncovered 5.8kg of cocaine in McCollum's bag at 8.10am on August 6, 2013, separated into 16 food packets.
Some 5.7kg of the drug was found in Reid's luggage, divided through 18 similar packages.
McCollum admitted to packing the food packages in her own bag, which was seized by police at Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport airport.
In all, over 11.5kg of the killer drug was discovered in their bags.
Initially, the pair told investigators they had been held hostage by a group of drug traffickers and that they were in fear of their lives.
But when quizzed about the photos found on their phones, 23-year-old McCollum said: "A photograph can hide what you really feel inside."
She also said that the police had asked her and pal Melissa to pose for the pictures.
"The police asked us to take photos with them. We were too scared to tell them (they were allegedly under duress) because if we told the police, he was going to call to make a statement about it," she said in her official declaration.
"And also, Enrique (A drug dealer who the pair say organised their trip) had pictures of my family and a photocopy of my passport."
Investigators then asked why she and Reid had such a "cheerful attitude" in the photos if they were in fear of their lives.
The former photography student replied: "A photograph can hide what you really feel inside. A smile and a calm front is easy to put on.
"Enrique had told us to take photos showing happiness," she added, stating that they had been given a camera by their bosses to make their personae as tourists look more realistic. The photos were taken around the Inca world heritage site of Machu Picchu, near Cusco in Peru between August 2 and 4, 2013.
The pair flew from the Peruvian capital to the popular tourist destination for four days, before returning to Lima via train on August 4.
Authorities believe the trip had been booked to make the duo look like regular tourists.
The package, including tickets on Peru Rail, were booked on July 27. Reid and McCollum did not travel to Peru together. Reid arrived on July 31 and McCollum the following day.
We can also reveal that it was discovered from text messages on their phones that the pair - who said they barely knew each other before they met a day before their trip - were, in fact, close friends.
In initial interviews and to date, McCollum claimed the pair had only met in Mallorca airport, after she had travelled from Ibiza, believing she was heading for Barcelona.
When asked about the "friendship, enmity or kinship" she shared with Reid, she said: "The first time I met her was at the airport in Mallorca, accompanied by a Peruvian man."
This was despite the fact that the pair did not travel to Peru at the same time.
Revealed in messages stored on their phones, however, we can see a deep friendship that appears to be far more than two days old.
One Blackberry phone each was seized from the women. Reid had one SIM card, while McCollum had two. They say they were bought for them by Enrique and their old ones were taken away. They also told authorities that they had been warned not to use the internet on the devices as they had been "tapped".