Friday 23 February 2018

Early release for Michaella if she gives up gang

Prosecutors say drug mules could be home by Christmas if they agree to be state witnesses

Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly with Melissa Reid, above, after their arrest

PROSECUTORS have offered drug mule Michaella McCollum Connolly a chance of freedom by Christmas – if she helps bring down the drugs gang that flew them to Peru.

Michaella and her co-accused Melissa Reid have been told they can leave prison in as little as two months if they agree to become witness es to assist authorities to track down and jail the criminals officials still believe they are shielding.

The revelation comes just days ahead of a crucial court hearing at which Melissa and Michaella, both 20, will be asked for more information about their life-changing trip to Peru in August to pick up €1.7m of cocaine they tried to smuggle back to Europe.

The women confessed last week to drugs smuggling – after weeks of protesting their innocence – in the hope of being sentenced to less than seven years in prison.

But their defence strategy appeared to fail when prosecutors got the sentencing hearing cancelled.

Peruvian state prosecutors are demanding more information from the women before they agree to let them benefit from an early termination process whereby drug mules automatically receive a sixth off the minimum eight-year sentence for drug-trafficking.

Melissa, from Lenzie near Edinburgh, and Michaella, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, still insist they were coerced into smuggling drugs by armed Colombian mafia who kidnapped them in Ibiza where they were doing summer jobs.

Chief prosecutor Juan Mendoza Abarca revealed last night: "There is a possibility these two women can be out of prison in around two months and never have to go back to jail. But they have to give us all the information they have, names, addresses, contact details and so on, so we can bring the drugs gang here in Peru and abroad to justice.

"The women's story about being kidnapped and forced to Peru at gunpoint is illogical. Our experience is that drug mules come to Peru from Europe of their own free will to make money."

He added: "We believe Melissa and Michaella have the information we need to identify and capture the criminals behind them.

"There will be people in Peru, Spain and possibly the UK they were involved with that are still operating and sending drugs mules like Melissa and Michaella here.

"The women hold their own future in their hands. They have the option of collaborating with state prosecutors, helping us bring down this criminal organisation and tasting freedom again very quickly or saying nothing and going to jail for a very long time."

The two were anticipating that by admitting drug smuggling, they would be able to benefit from the early termination process and receive jail sentences of six years and eight months.

But the prosecution put its foot down after the girls' confessions last week in court and insisted there would be no deals unless they gave credible information about their journey to Peru and the drug masters they came into contact with in Spain and south America.

It had been hinted they could receive a further sentence reduction if they named names and helped authorities identify the Mr Bigs they were working for. But until now it had never been spelled out so brutally.

If they fail to convince prosecutors they have done enough even to merit the benefit of an early termination process, they will go to trial and could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

A source close to the case said: "Melissa and Michaella are aware that collaborating with the state prosecutor is an option. If you accept the idea they do know more than they are letting on, then they face an agonising decision."

The source added that informing "on an international drugs gang obviously carries its risks but spending some of the most important years of your life in a hellhole jail thousands of miles from home can't be very pleasant either."

Mr Mendoza Abarca said: "Collaboration with the state prosecutor in return for an early exit from jail forms part of the negotiations that go on in these cases.

"The sentence is not something that worries us now. The women have confessed to a criminal act and accepted full responsibility for their actions so it's just a question of how long they spend in prison.

"Any decision to collaborate would be shrouded in secrecy. They'd be given a code name which they'd then testify under if the drugs gang were brought to trial with information they'd provided us. No one would even know it had happened."

Court officials confirmed that the sentencing hearing scheduled for Tuesday had been cancelled following a prosecution submission for the women to expand on statements they made when they pleaded guilty last Tuesday.

The private hearing at 11am local time had been due to take place in the same makeshift courtroom inside a men's prison in Sarita Colonia – a short drive from their women's jail in Lima called Virgen de Fatima. Melissa and Michaella have been held there since August 22 – a fortnight after they were arrested as they tried to fly from Lima to Madrid and then Majorca with more than 11kg of cocaine in their suitcases.

Melissa's parents, energy company manager Billy, 54, and national grid administrator Debra, 53, have encouraged their daughter to plead guilty but say they believe she was coerced into carrying cocaine through Lima's Jorge Chavez airport.

Debra told a TV programme ahead of their court confession: "Melissa was definitely carrying the drugs in her luggage. That's for sure. But we still believe she was coerced into it. Obviously now we realise she needs to plead guilty just to get home."

Prosecutors and police have always said they believed the women were lying about being forced at gunpoint to go to Peru to pick up drugs.

Police chief Tito Perez, head of the anti-drug unit's investigations branch where Melissa and Michaella were held for a fortnight after their arrest, said: "What the women said about being kidnapped by armed mafia and forced to come to Peru was illogical."

Mr Mendoza Abarca has claimed their stories were "incredible" and that they had been coached in what to say.

He said soon after their arrests: "They staged this whole thing from the beginning because they knew it was possible they would get caught and if they did get caught they had the excuses really well planned.

"It's very obvious they were trained in what to say if they were caught. They were prepared in every sense."

The women only gave police the first names of the men they claimed had kidnapped them in Ibiza where they were spending the summer working in bars.

By Gerard Couzens

Sunday Independent

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