Friday 21 November 2014

The dilemma facing the Peru Two

The turnaround in our reaction to the young women arrested in Peru is astonishing, writes Carol Hunt

Published 29/09/2013 | 05:00

Michaella McCollum Connolly
Food packaging allegedly used to hide the cocaine
Michaella McCollum Connolly, left, with Melissa Reid, centre, on their way to court in Lima last week
In this Aug. 6, 2013 photo provided by Peru's National Police, Michaella McCollum Connolly, of Ireland, left, and Melissa Reid, of Britain, stand behind their luggage after being detained at the airport in Lima, Peru

The first public reactions, in the main, were of sympathy and distress. Two pretty girls, only 20 years of age, spending their summer working in the sun-soaked isle of Ibiza, somehow got caught up in the murky world of drugs smuggling.

One Scottish, the other one Irish, from Tyrone; her parents, interviewed by the media, appeared shocked, mystified and confused, terrified for the safety of their baby. All over the country, parents with daughters wondered if it was a case of, "there but for the grace of God ... "

Many girls work their summers abroad. Even though my eldest is only 12, I presume, when old enough, she will want to travel with friends and soak up foreign climes; enjoy a carefree youth before the constraints of career and family intervene; get herself into scrapes and out of them again without the need for parental involvement – but hopefully without getting herself arrested or worse.

The parents of part-time model Michaella McCollum Connolly were likely no different; happy to see their girl working abroad but with all the usual worries that loving parents have. Michaella had arrived in Ibiza in June and, from her Facebook pages anyway, seemed to be having a ball of a time. She remained in contact with her family until suddenly, in late July, all communication ceased. Immediately they were terrified something had happened to her. Her sister issued a statement on social media appealing for information, saying: "Michaella comes from a very close and loving family and we are all extremely worried and concerned that she hasn't been in contact and that we cannot contact her."

When there was no sign of their girl, the family contacted Interpol, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and began to liaise with Spanish police. Naturally, they were mad with worry about what could have happened to her. Meanwhile, on an Irish news site reporting the missing girl, this comment was posted :

"Watch[ed] a documentary on telly about Ibiza a couple of weeks ago and all major crime and missing persons there are drug related. A girl interviewed on the programme that had worked there described how people had been found died [sic] on the island due to drug misuse. I hope she [Michaella] is found safe and sound for the family's sake but if the paper headline is true it's not looking great."

How prescient that comment was, because soon after came the news that Michaella had been arrested in Lima, Peru on drug trafficking charges. Sounding as if she was just in a bit of a scrape, she called her brother, begging him not to tell her mother: "Don't tell my mummy. I was just going to tell her I had been busy travelling."

The story she and her companion, Melissa Reid, told the authorities was that they had been kidnapped by a Colombian drugs cartel after falling in with a man called "The Cockney" – known to them as 'Joey' or 'Jake' respectively. They had, they alleged, been forced at gunpoint to travel to Peru to smuggle cocaine from there back to Spain with the threat that their families would be hurt if they didn't.

"God love them" was the initial reaction of the public. Or at least it was mine. I watched as a video showed them being interviewed by Peruvian authorities; they seemed relatively unafraid, calm almost, as if being arrested for drug smuggling in South America was not the worst thing that could happen in their young lives. Minus their scanty party outfits and make-up, they looked unbelievably young; out of their depth, naive and in desperate need of protection. As we watched them stare blankly at a questioning officer, we hoped their story would prove true, quickly, and with minimal distress to all concerned.

Michaella's family immediately set up an appeal fund to help with legal costs and travel expenses; the media, in the main, was sympathetic to Michaella's plight. A friend described her as "such a good girl" but too "trusting" and "easy to manipulate".

Then suddenly, it all changed. It was revealed that the girls' story had holes as big as the Grand Canyon. "Friends" from Ibiza began to talk, accusing both Michaella and Melissa of being wild party animals who took 'free' drugs, ran up massive bills with dealers, and hung out with very dodgy characters. An ex-boyfriend of Melissa's insisted that he – and others – had known of the drug-smuggling plan and had tried persuade Melissa not to participate. Public sympathy evaporated – as evidenced by the Fund for Michaella, with just £2,953 donated by this weekend.

And in Lima, prosecutors also declined to accept their story, eventually leading to Melissa and Michaella pleading guilty to avoid a much longer sentence. Terrifyingly for them, the prosecutors have refused to accept their plea, wanting more information about the gang who allegedly gave the girls the drugs to smuggle. Wanting to make an example of them, perhaps.

On the Facebook page, 'Free Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid', the comments are coming fast and nasty. "If you don't want to go to a disgusting prison, don't smuggle coke in a third world country" was one of the least offensive.

And those who criticise have a valid point. Drug smuggling is a very serious crime. What if it were two young black lads, from "deprived" backgrounds and with no nice middle-class parents and friends to speak up for them, who were caught?

Would our initial reaction have been so sympathetic? Perhaps not. Actually, scrub that and let's admit it, of course not!

I know I, and perhaps others, feel guilty about that. Had we inadvertently highlighted our middle-class bias? Had we been sympathetic because these girls reminded us of our own daughters, of our own normal lives? Are we influenced by watching that nice girl doing time for drug smuggling in the popular series Orange is the New Black?

Perhaps.

So what did we do? We backtracked. And we compensated. We decided to prove our objectivity, our lack of prejudice, by unequivocally denouncing these two bloody silly, criminally naive young girls. The U-turn has been astonishing. It's as if arrest for drug-smuggling is catching and we all now need to point up the difference between our own children and these sad young women.

Why? Because not so deep down we fear how easy it is for kids today to become naively, stupidly, and yes, greedily, embroiled in such a disastrous affair, and we pray that our own would never be so "easily manipulated", that they have the cop-on, the smarts, that these girls so clearly lack.

Because, we fear, there but for the grace of God ...

Sunday Independent

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