British women face 'drug mule' charges in Peru

The case of two British women charged with smuggling cocaine out of Peru could become a diplomatic row like a similar case between Mexico and France.

Martin Mejia/AP
Police escort Michaella McCollum Connolly, of Ireland (l.), and Melissa Reid, of Britain, in handcuffs as they are moved from the National Police anti-drug headquarters to a court to be formally charged for drug trafficking in Lima, Peru, Aug. 20.

Two British women formally charged with attempting to smuggle cocaine out of Peru face grim prison conditions for months, or even years, as they await trial.

But their plight could reach far beyond the fate of two individuals, if this turns into another “Florence Cassez” affair.

Ms. Cassez, a French woman accused of participating in a kidnapping ring in Mexico, languished for years in Mexican prison – an incident that turned into a major diplomatic row between France and Mexico.

Two narratives clashed: Was she the innocent victim of a corrupt system, or an opportunistic foreigner aggravating criminality and impunity abroad?

Cassez was convicted seven years ago in Mexico City with her Mexican boyfriend, who allegedly headed a gang responsible for a dozen kidnappings; Cassez, who was arrested at a ranch near Mexico City where many abductees were found, always claimed she had no idea what her boyfriend did, saying she thought he was a car salesman.  

She was given 96 years in jail, later reduced to 60.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy lobbied for her release, calling her the victim of a corrupt and incompetent judicial system.

"We will not leave this young woman in prison for another 60 years," Mr. Sarkozy said when her sentence was upheld in 2011. He then called for a year-long celebration of Mexican culture in 11 cities throughout France to be dedicated to Cassez’s fate; Mexico, in a fury, canceled the entire event, some 350 events in all.

Cassez was finally set free in January and was given a national welcome when she returned to French soil. French President François Hollande called for normalizing relations with Mexico. 

“I want to recognize the Mexican justice system because it put the law first,” Mr. Hollande said in a statement. “That was the trust we put in it. And today we can say that between France and Mexico, we have the best relations it is possible to have.”

But doubts, and rifts, linger. The Mexican Supreme Court decided three to two that Cassez should be released because procedural rules were violated, reported The Washington Post. That included police staging her arrest in 2005 for television crews.

But while the case showed deep flaws in Mexican justice, it didn’t answer the question of her innocence.

“We will never know whether Florence is guilty or innocent, but we know for certain there are specific people who violated due process,” Luis Gonzalez Placencia, president of the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, told the Associated Press.

Now, two European women face years in another notoriously complex judicial system.

The BBC reports that Michaella McCollum, of Dungannon in Northern Ireland, and Melissa Reid, of Lenzie near Glasgow, are accused of trying to smuggle cocaine valued at $2.3 million out of Peru.

Their arrest comes as the drug trade between Latin America and Europe grows.

Lawyer Peter Madden, representing Ms. McCollum, said both women would plead not guilty.

According to the Irish Times, the two women were arrested Aug. 6 in Lima with 24 pounds of cocaine in their suitcases.

Already two different narratives are unfolding, just as they did in the Cassez case.

Mr. Madden, the lawyer, said the women were “confused and frightened.” They claim they were threatened at gunpoint on the resort island of Ibiza, in Spain, where they were working. They say they were forced to smuggle the drugs to Peru, he said.

Spanish and Peruvian sources have doubted those claims, according to Global Post:

“In my experience, I don't think these two girls were forced to do this because – particularly when you go to South America – you need to pass several controls," said First Sergeant Alberto Arian Barilla, according to the Independent.

“The first thing you do is go to the passport control and say 'listen, this is what is happening to me'. The policeman will react so I don't think they were forced," he added.

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