Sunday 25 September 2016

It seems Michaella's big crime is being a strong and pretty young woman

Published 05/04/2016 | 02:30

Michaella McCollum has said that she was a naive young woman when caught smuggling cocaine out of Peru. Photo: AP Photo/Karel Navarro
Michaella McCollum has said that she was a naive young woman when caught smuggling cocaine out of Peru. Photo: AP Photo/Karel Navarro

Michaella McCollum committed a serious offence - but managing to endure nearly three years in the Peruvian prison system without turning into a haggard crone seems to be her biggest crime, as far as some people are concerned.

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There is a perception out there that McCollum got off lightly. Having been caught trying to smuggle nearly €2m of cocaine from Peru to Spain in August 2013, she emerged from jail last week looking fit and attractive. This seems to be problematic for some.

On Sunday night, McCollum was subjected to a level of vitriol on social media that would suggest she is currently public enemy number one.

Many people trashed RTÉ for broadcasting an interview with the recently released ex-con and queried if the station was 'celebrity building'.

If this is so, then the line between notoriety and celebrity has been irrevocably blurred. McCollum was infamous before she sat down to be questioned by reporter Trevor Birney.

Her arrest in 2013 dominated headlines here for weeks and her eventual sentencing was also widely reported. Throughout her term of imprisonment, newspapers have run updates on the likelihood of her early release or possible repatriation back to Northern Ireland.

RTÉ even broadcast a 2014 documentary about her experience, 'Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run', which followed members of her family as they travelled to Peru and was well received.

Clearly, her release from jail was always going to be big news and the inevitable scramble to get the first interview with the young Tyrone woman was eventually won by the production company Fine Point Films.

The interview won't win any journalism awards for being hard-hitting and RTÉ has some questions to answer about the manner in which it was conducted.

While McCollum was not paid for the interview, it remains unclear if members of her family benefited financially.

It would also be interesting to learn if Fine Point Films agreed not to broach certain subjects - like anything related to the drugs gang for which McCollum was working when arrested - in return for securing the interview.

However, it is worth pointing out that McCollum has not walked out of prison a free woman. She was released on parole and will have to remain in Peru for up to four years, living in constant fear that her parole could be revoked and she could end up back in jail.

Consequently, it is likely that she couldn't give the kind of forthright interview she would have been able to give if she was now back home.

For instance, what is notable by its absence in the interview was any criticism of the Peruvian prison system, despite the fact that conditions are renowned as being hellish.

In Ancon 2, the jail where she served most of her time, at least eight women share a cell, the toilet is a hole in the ground and her family had to send her £200 a month to pay for her food, water and toiletries.

While Mr Birney has been criticised for asking questions about McCollum's hairstyle and her distinctive bun, her response did hint at the kind of nightmarish conditions she had endured.

After her initial arrest, she spent 15 days in a prison station with no access to a shower, no soap, shampoo or even toilet paper - no way to clean herself.

So instead of having her long greasy hair hanging down around her face, she tied it up in a tight bun. Not a fashion statement, a coping mechanism.

Part of the reason that public sympathy seems to have evaporated for McCollum is the elaborate lie she concocted, along with her co-accused, Melissa Reid, after her arrest.

The two young women initially claimed that they had been kidnapped, held at gunpoint and forced to board a flight.

In reality, they were there voluntarily and spent some time after their arrival in Peru visiting tourist sites, before attempting to leave the country with suitcases laden with cocaine.

On Sunday, McCollum said she had been young and naive when she agreed to smuggle the drugs and that by the time she found herself in Peru she felt she was in too deep to back out.

She lied after her arrest because she was afraid of the consequences of taking responsibility for her actions.

This doesn't excuse her behaviour, but her explanation is at least credible and ultimately McCollum did plead guilty and face up to what she had done.

She has also expressed her guilt and remorse at what might have been. If her smuggling attempt had been successful, she said she would have had "blood on her hands" and that "families would have been ruined".

Other than donning sackcloth and ashes and volunteering to go back into prison to break rocks for the remainder of her sentence, it is hard to know what else this young woman could do to demonstrate her remorse.

Many viewers were incredulous that McCollum looked so physically well, but being pretty and having nice hair, after working in a prison salon, does not mean that she was in some kind of glorified spa for years.

Interestingly, when international cannabis smuggler turned author Howard Marks appeared on 'The Late Late Show' in 2010, there was no such outrage.

Instead, he was largely hailed as a "legend" on social media, begging the question of whether people's anger was prompted not by McCollum's crime but rather by the fact that she is an attractive young woman who doesn't look like she has been broken by her experience.

It is not disputed that drug gangs largely prey on weak and vulnerable people when recruiting mules. In fact, many routinely come before our courts, having swallowed drugs or concealed them in their suitcases in return for the promise of paltry amounts of money.

Last year, a 24-year-old Brazilian student, John Kennedy Santos Gurjao, died on an Aer Lingus flight en route from Lisbon to Dublin when some of the 80 pellets of cocaine that he had swallowed ruptured in his stomach.

Drug smugglers, when they are caught, deserve to be punished.

But they also deserve the chance to rehabilitate themselves and get on with their lives when they get out of prison and have paid their debt to society.

Irish Independent

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