Emma Cowing: Problem of party island’s drug gangs

Emma Cowing
Emma Cowing
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ON 22 June, 19-year-old Melissa Reid posted a picture to her Instagram page.

In it, she and a friend pose, smiling, outside Prestwick airport, where they are about to board a plane to Ibiza for the summer. As teenagers are wont to do, she has hashtagged the picture with various phrases. They include #mightnotcomeback #whoknows and #loveyou’sall.

This morning as Reid, from Lenzie just outside Glasgow, wakes up to an eighth day in a Peruvian police cell, those words must ring frighteningly true. Last Tuesday, Reid was arrested at Lima airport alongside 20-year-old Irish national Michaela McCollum Connolly after 11kg of cocaine with a street value of around £1.5 million was found in their luggage. In an extraordinary video, released on Monday by the Peruvian authorities, Reid is seen answering questions about the drugs, saying she was “forced” to carry them in her luggage and looking tired, exhausted and scared.

We may never know the exact circumstances that led to 5.78kg of class A drugs being discovered in Reid’s luggage, but unfortunately for her, the Peruvian judicial system may not look kindly on it. The country has the second highest rate of arrests on suspicion of the transportation of drugs in the world. In 2012, 248 “drug mules” were arrested at Jorge Chavaz airport in Lima, carrying a total of 1,600 kilos of illegal drugs, predominantly cocaine. Of those arrested, 57 were Spanish – more than any other nationality. The two girls were flying to Madrid, and then on to Majorca.

The situation is, I think it is fair to say, every parent’s nightmare. You wave your child off on a summer’s adventure to Ibiza, only to find, just six weeks later, that she is in prison in South America and facing a jail sentence of up to 25 years. It may be as much as a year, which will be spent in an overcrowded women’s prison in Peru, before the case even comes to trial.

Reid went to Lenzie Academy, where she left at the end of fifth year. She worked at Scottish & Southern Energy and then at Next as a sales assistant. In May, she ran the Race For Life in memory of her grandfather, wearing a pink t-shirt with the slogan Cancer: we’re coming to get you. On her Facebook page, just before leaving for the Balearic island where she planned to spend the summer working in bars and clubs, she admitted she was “scared” about going.

Although it is very much a party island, there is a dark underbelly to Ibiza. Drug gangs target the young men and women handing out leaflets to partygoers for the many bars and clubs on the island, persuading them to become a friendly front for drug dealers. Some take it a step further, persuading them to take an all-expenses paid holiday to South America in return for smuggling drugs out of the country. Money is also often offered as a sweetener.

We do not know what happened in Reid’s case but, interestingly, one Peruvian specialist calls such drug mules “a victim of the narco system”, explaining: “They are a dual figure – because they are both victims and criminals.”

Drug smuggling is, of course, an abomination. But still, I can’t help but feel sorry for those young, naïve, exceptionally silly Brits who get caught up in drug deals the size of which they barely comprehend.

At 19, most young women are that dangerous mix of brave and innocent. They think they know it all and are worldly wise when really, they are still wee lassies, ill-equipped to deal with the dangers of life in a foreign country whose rules they don’t entirely understand. In Reid’s own words, they’re “scared”.

On Monday, a guard who has allegedly had contact with the two girls in jail, told a reporter: “One of them has said her cell is like being in hell, but if they are found guilty they’ll see what hell is really like. They are both starting to realise how serious this is.”

While these two young women – women who, until just over a week ago had their whole lives ahead of them – languish in a jail cell in Peru – what of the individuals who placed those drugs in their luggage in the first place? Whether they did it with or without the girls’ knowledge, it seems to me they are the real criminals. And their chances of being caught are near to nil.

I hope that Reid’s family are able to get legal and consular help, and I hope that she is able to prove her case. Otherwise, tragically, it may be a very long time before she sees Prestwick airport again.