Greedy, naive or unlucky, Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum Connolly’s years in a grim Peruvian jail won’t do anything to slow down Ibiza’s drug-fuelled party, writes Dani Garavelli
DELVING into Melissa Reid’s Facebook page is an illuminating, if exhausting experience. The dizzying array of photographs she has posted offer a glimpse into the 24/7 party lifestyle of the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who every year head off to spend part of the summer season in Ibiza – the clubbing capital of Europe.
On hot Spanish streets, in pubs, on tiny balconies and at the side of pools, groups of bronzed and giddily happy youngsters pull faces for the camera, their arms thrown wide in a display of enthusiasm and invincibility.
Ibiza is a byword for unbridled hedonism; for years, its clubs (Pacha, Space, Privilege, Amnesia, Eden) and its world-famous DJs (David Guetta, Pete Tong, Fatboy Slim) have attracted both A-list celebrities, who stay in cliff-top villas, super-yachts or luxury hotels, and hordes of gap year students, who take summer jobs as nightclub dancers or hand out flyers outside venues to fund their adventure.
Fuelling this hedonism is the drug culture which has given a whole new meaning to Ibiza’s nickname “the White Island”; according to Ibiza veterans, cocaine and Ecstasy are everywhere, but particularly in the big resorts such as Ibiza Town, Playa d’en Bossa and San Antonio.
The police may be trying to crack down (or they may not, as Class A drugs are the mainstay of the island’s economy). But either way, it’s easy to score; all you have to do is ask those paid to promote the pubs and clubs. If they are not selling them themselves, they will quickly point you in the right direction.
The drugs (and to a lesser extent alcohol) bring a darker edge to the Balearic bliss; every year, there are assaults, accidental overdoses and balcony falls. Rival drugs gangs engage in turf wars, the violence occasionally spilling into the street. A few years ago, three young men were caught in the crossfire as dealers shot at each other outside a club in San Antonio.
Such events barely register on Ibiza’s party people, so it is unlikely Melissa, 19, from Lenzie, and her friend Rebecca Hughes, gave them a second’s thought as they set off for the island in June; high on life, they seem – like so many others – to have been focused solely on getting the most out of their months in the sun.
Yet, just seven weeks later, Reid – and Michaella McCollum Connolly, from Dungannon in County Tyrone, who had previously been reported missing – are languishing in a Peruvian police cell after being caught trying to smuggle £1.5m of cocaine out of the country. Filmed immediately after arrest, her face free of make-up and hair hanging lifelessly, Reid seems a world away from the gallus girl who thought she was “living the dream”.
There are conflicting reports about how that dream turned sour, but the women insist they were not willing accomplices in an orchestrated drugs deal, or naive adventurers tempted by the offer of big money. Rather, they insist, they are innocents who were forced to become mules by a cartel of dealers who approached them in Ibiza, and kept them in a variety of “safe houses” in Spain and Peru before handing over the six kilos of cocaine outside the Colonial San Agustin Hotel in Lima the day before their flight back.
Reid, whose father William, a manager for a gas company, was allowed to see his daughter twice after travelling to Peru last week, claims she was befriended by a “charming” man called Jake who later turned aggressive and put pressure on her to meet “his friends”. Bundled into a flat, she was set on by gangsters who put a gun to hear head and told her they would kill her if she didn’t cooperate.
After meeting in a Majorca safe-house, she and McCollum Connolly were taken to Madrid and on to Lima, where they were taken to several attractions, including Machu Picchu, to give the impression they were bona fide tourists, before being given the suitcases with the drugs inside.
Though the women have insisted they had nothing to do with the drugs trade, two girls who lived close to Reid in Ibiza said they were frequently kept awake by wild 7am parties at her flat and that she often sat at the communal pool boasting about the amount of ketamine she had taken. There is no evidence to suggest either she or McCollum Connolly were involved in dealing.
Though some aspects of their story seem improbable (could it really have been impossible to escape at the airports when they must have had their passports?) their plight has exposed a new threat that will strike fear into the hearts of the many parents whose children plan to join the 700,000 Britons heading out next year; that they will be targeted by dealers who prey on cash-strapped Ibiza virgins, persuading them to take part in risky drug-smuggling operations.
Thanks to the reality TV show Ibiza Uncovered, the island was for a long time known chiefly as a venue for wild stag and hen parties: the Gomorrah of the Med. More recently, however, it has regained its crown as one of the hippest destinations in Europe. This summer, the celebrities have been pouring in, from David and Samantha Cameron and Benedict Cumberbatch to Kate Moss and Tulisa Contostavlos.
Despite its reputation, the island does have its quiet havens. But for many younger tourists, the near ubiquity of drugs in resorts such as Ibiza Town and San Antonio is its biggest attraction. In 2010, a survey by Liverpool’s John Moore University found almost half of holidaymakers aged between 16 and 25 took Ecstasy during their time there, the demand boosted by the cost of alcohol, which can be as high as £15 for a vodka and coke. At that time, police said the trade – which sees 40,000 pills a day being sold – was being controlled by rival gangs from Liverpool and Newcastle.
For the past few years, at the end of August and the beginning of September, Ibiza officers backed by the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency have staged a series of high-profile raids, seizing large quantities of drugs and making dozens of arrests in a move which the police claim has broken up the gangs. But cynics suggest this is a PR exercise designed to appease the outside world without making any real impact on supply.
What is less talked about is how many young people who spend the summer there not only take drugs, but go on to deal themselves; with their resources dwindling and paid just a few euros an hour for handing out leaflets, they decide to supplement their income by selling pills on the streets and beaches.
Craig Fowler, who a few years ago spent a summer working in pubs and clubs in San Antonio, met several people, including a female flatmate, who turned to low-level dealing to fund their lifestyle.
“Every morning I would get up bleary-eyed and see her at the table sorting Ecstasy pills into bags of four to sell on the beaches,” he says.
“Then, there was a guy who was a holiday rep when I first met him – he became a full-time dealer after a couple of years because he had got to know the island and realised it was a much easier way to make some money. It’s very much part of the culture in certain parts of the island. Occasionally someone will get caught and end up in jail, but there are lots of people like my flatmate who do it without any repercussions.”
Fowler, now a freelance journalist in Edinburgh, says he was never tempted to get involved himself. “Apart from the moral conundrum, I viewed the risks as too high, but I do have some sympathy for those who resorted to it after struggling to find work and would often look on enviously at those who profited after my night’s toil would earn £15,” he says.
The dealers Fowler knew were so low down the chain they had no contact with big-time gangsters. But since Reid and McCollum Connolly have been arrested several other people have come forward to claim they too were put under pressure to smuggle drugs from South America.
One man told how he was encouraged to rack up debts by a dealer posing as a friend (the same dealer who targeted Melissa, he says). When those debts reached several thousands pounds, the affability evaporated and the dealer made threats and confiscated his passport. Eventually, the dealer offered the 27-year-old an “easy” get-out: if he brought a suitcase back from Peru, his debts would be wiped out and he would be given a couple of thousand pounds on top.
“They [the dealers] kept on saying, ‘Don’t worry, no-one has ever been caught going through Peru. It is a fact that no-one has ever been caught’,” he told a tabloid newspaper last week. “They say that in one breath, but in the next they coach you on what to say if you are stopped at the airport.” The man says he got as far as Madrid Airport before changing his mind and making a run for it.
Others are believed to have signed up for similar expeditions after being offered all-expenses-paid holidays. When Lucy Baker and her boyfriend Scott Campbell ran out of money on Ibiza in 2005, they agreed to smuggle what they thought was cannabis from Costa Rica to Amsterdam. They were caught with cocaine in their luggage as they tried to board a flight in Mexico and spent four years incarcerated there before being transferred to British jails.
Although investigations into Reid and McCollum Connolly’s case are at an early stage, it is believed they could have been targeted by a cartel run from behind bars by Philip Austin Collins, nephew of former Genesis frontman Phil Collins. The 38-year-old is being held in the country’s Piedras Gordas Prison after £3 million of cocaine was found in a yacht he and two other British men were trying to sail across the Atlantic.
“I do have sympathy with some who get caught up in this, because I can imagine they’ve been a bit naive,” says Fowler. “They’ll have been told what they’re doing is low-risk, that no-one ever gets caught. There’ll be a bit of greed in there as well and they won’t have thought about the consequences. When you’ve been in Ibiza for any length of time, social conventions go out of the window.”
The degree to which the women were misled about the chances of being arrested is clear from the prison statistics; there are currently 31 Britons in Peruvian jails, most of them on drug trafficking charges.
Though the footage of them being interviewed in the airport – and later at Dirando police station, where they are now being held – suggests it’s taking a while, the seriousness of the consequences they are likely to face must now be sinking in.
According to the charity Prisoners Abroad, jails in Peru are overcrowded; most hold more than twice the number they were designed for and diseases like tuberculosis are rife. Medical treatment is limited and inmates must pay £25 a month for food and bottled water.
Under Peruvian law, suspects can be held for 30 days before a decision is taken on whether or not to charge them. If charges are filed, the girls will be transferred to Santa Monica women’s prison, where foreign nationals are held. It is thought drugs “mules” are normally sentenced to around eight years, though this could be reduced to six if they plead guilty.
On Melissa’s Facebook page, photographs of her 18th birthday show her celebrating with friends; last week she spent her 20th in Dirandro police station, where she tearfully blew out the candles on cake her father brought in. Though she wished for her release, and her dad said he will do everything he can to secure it, she knows she could be 28 before she gets to mark another one in freedom.
Back in Ibiza, though, the party rocks on; the clubs are still jam-packed with carefree, spaced-out kids and the drugs are still easy to come by. «