LIMA, PERU — When two Peruvian men asked Krista Barnes and Jennifer Davis if they wanted to go to Peru to pick up some cocaine, the Los Angeles roommates thought it sounded like an easy way to make money.
They were promised $5,000 each to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Peru and return with the cocaine. And they were told nothing would happen.
But things didn't go as promised. On their way back to the States, moments after arriving at the Lima airport, they were detained by customs officials who used knives to tear through the false bottoms of their suitcases, revealing their secret cargo.
Since then, their week-long trip to Peru has turned into a 17-month incarceration in an overcrowded women's prison on the outskirts of Lima, where they are still waiting to be sentenced.
As much as these two typically all-American young women cut an unusual picture against the backdrop of a Peruvian prison, they are not anomalies.
In fact, they are two of seven similarly young, attractive, American burriers, or drug mules, currently in the Chorrillos Women's Prison. And they are also part of a growing phenomenon in the international drug trade.
Peru is the second-biggest producer of coca, used to make cocaine, and the country with what many consider the best interdiction program, according to Ricardo Soberon, a drug-policy expert for a nongovernmental organization in Lima.
In the past few years, the Peruvian Air Force has rendered the traditional drug corridor for planes between Peru and Colombia virtually impassable.
Traffickers have resorted to using other air routes. But they are also using an increasing number of burriers, most often women, to get smaller shipments to the United States and Europe, Mr. Soberon says.
When Ms. Barnes, a 19-year-old blonde, and Ms. Davis, a 20-year-old with the build of a runway model, set off for Peru, they planned to use their money for trips home for Thanksgiving, helping their parents out with a little extra cash around the holidays, and pocketing some for themselves.
"[The two Peruvians] said they do it all the time, that they were professionals, and they pay a lot of money," Barnes says. "We didn't think about getting caught, because we didn't think it could happen. We didn't know there were Americans in prison for this. We didn't know what burriers were.
"We didn't even know how much a kilo was. I'm talking about pure ignorance, pure stupidity."
Barnes and Davis suspect they were set up, based on how quickly they were apprehended and how quickly the press arrived. Some experts say it is not uncommon for a single trafficker to send out a number of burriers at the same time. They tip off the authorities about one mule to create a distraction so the others can get through without incident.
Instead of a dorm room, Barnes and Davis now share a cell no wider than the span of their arms. They take bucket baths with cold water and sleep fitfully in a roach-infested room.
They have to provide their own toilet paper, soap, and other essentials. But they say hardest part is thinking about their families. "They are really suffering," Davis says, unable to elaborate as her face swells in the urge to cry and her voice drifts off into the muggy air of the courtyard.
Barnes and Davis expect to be sentenced to eight years and fined. If they pay the fine, they can apply for a transfer to a US prison where they can serve the rest of their sentence in better conditions and perhaps receive early parole. They had their first hearing Feb. 11, and hope to be sentenced by March.
When they were interrogated, Barnes and Davis decided they would cooperate with the authorities. That has turned out to be the second-biggest mistake of their lives.
Under Peru's justice system, each person a defendant fingers is automatically added to that person's case, adding the time of investigating those people and proceeding legally against them.
"We cooperated, and now we're suffering because of it," Davis says. "If someone new walked into this prison, I would tell them to shut up and not say anything."
She adds in a voice laced with frustration, "If they want to really get the big guys, they should encourage people to cooperate, not punish them."
Barnes and Davis are the first to admit they committed a crime and deserve to be punished.
At the same time, they believe they are also victims. While they pray never to see another American come through the prison's gates, it's quite possible they will.
"We were used, totally used, but that's what these people do," Barnes says. "They actually scout for burriers. They look for people with no families, people between 18 and 23.
"People who are young and stupid - like we were."