A NORTHERN Ireland dancer and her travelling partner are to face prosecutors in Peru later on Wednesday for trying to traffick £1.5 million worth of cocaine to Spain.
Michaela McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid are protesting their innocence claiming they were forced at gunpoint to take cocaine by a Columbian drug gang.
The women are expected to enter not guilty pleas to the drug trafficking charges when they appear in court for the first time.
The pair were stopped ten days ago trying to board a flight from Jorge Chavez Internaational Airport in Lima to Madrid after a drugs sniffer dog picked up a narcotics scent from their luggage.
They had booked onward flights to Palma, Mallorca and then back to Ibiza where they had been working in the nightclub scene.
Since then they have been held in a cramped police cell where they have been visited by clerics and embassy officials
Catholic Archbishop Sean Walsh visited Michaela, 20, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone and 19-year-old Melissa, from Glasgow, in the police holding centre in Lima.
Last week, Peruvian police said they found more than 24lb (11kg) of cocaine, with a street value of £1.5m, in food packaging in the women’s luggage at the city’s airport.
Archbishop Walsh, from the Eastern Pentecostal Catholic Church who works with prisoners in Peru for several years, said he had met with the two women for half an hour at the holding centre.
“They told me that there were a group of Colombians that actually took them at gunpoint and threatened them,” he said.
He added that while he had not seen the women’s cells, he believed they were being treated well.
In Wednesday’s Daily Mirror, the two women told reporter Chris Bucktin that they were targeted by what the paper described as a “mysterious Londoner” in Ibiza.
They had then been robbed of their passports and mobile phones and taken between Spain and Peru, shadowed by South America gangsters, the paper reported.
Speaking to the Mirror, the women said they had first met each other after being taken to the drug cartel’s “safe house” in Majorca.
Once in Peru, the paper said they were “watched” on to an internal flight to the city of Cusco, a World Heritage site close to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, and were given the packages to transport.
Ms Reid told the paper: “They wanted us to act as though we were best friends and say we were students travelling around.
“If we didn’t do as we were told we would be dead. We were not smuggling for money, we were smuggling for our lives.”
She said the gang had information about their families and had threatened to target them too if the women tried to escape or inform the authorities.
The National Police of Peru released a video of the women being questioned just after their arrest.
In it, Ms Reid answers basic questions – such as her name and nationality – then says she did not know what she was carrying.
She told Chris Bucktin: “I was forced to take these bags in my luggage”.
The two women flew to Peru from Spain where they had been on a working holiday on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza.
They were heading back to Spain when they were arrested.
The women’s families were unaware they had gone to Peru and it is thought that some family members may now travel to Lima to provide support.
Ms McCollum’s family issued a statement through their lawyer saying she denied involvement in any criminal offence.
In a statement on Tuesday evening, the family of Ms McCollum Connolly said they are confident she will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
The family said they fully supported Michaela and that they were making arrangements to travel to Peru.
Belfast solicitors Madden & Finucane Company are representing the family,
Senior law firm partner Peter Madden said they are “obviously shocked and distressed by the recent events but are confident that Michaela will be exonerated”.
Support groups in Lima have been contacted to ensure that Ms McCollum’s current needs are met, he added.
Mr Madden said he was arranging legal representation for her in Lima.
He said: “I spoke to Michaela last night and she emphasised that she denied that she was guilty of any offence.
“She is well. She is not on hunger strike. She is finding it difficult to cope with the current situation, so far from home, but is optimistic.”
Ms Reid’s father, William, said there was no way his daughter would have been willingly involved.