Peru drugs: How innocent are Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum Connolly?
Peru drugs: How innocent are Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum Connolly?
- Neighbours of suspect Melissa Reid claim she held ‘wild drug parties’
- They say Reid was always talking about ‘how many drugs she had taken’
- Spanish police chief casts doubt on girls’ story, saying he doesn’t believe they were acting under duress
- Reid and Michaella McCollum Connolly were stopped at Peru airport with £1.5m worth of cocaine on them
- The pair say they were forced at gunpoint into the drug trade
- Holidaymakers in Ibiza speak of roaring drug trade that sucks girls in
- Reid ‘celebrates’ her 20th birthday in Peru prison with birthday cake from her father
Bar Amsterdam is down a dimly lit side street in the west end of San Antonio. There are bigger, brasher and better-known venues in Ibiza, but few enjoy such a sleazy reputation.
Drugs and large quantities of cash have been found on the premises during numerous police raids on the establishment.
A few years ago, it was featured in a BBC documentary called Drugland: Ibiza. Undercover reporters were filmed buying everything from ecstasy to cocaine over the bar as easily as a bottle of beer or a Sex On The Beach vodka cocktail.
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Party girl: Michaella McCollum Connolly, 20, had been working as a nightclub hostess in Ibiza party town San Antonio
Innocent? Melissa Reid (left) and Michaella McCollum Connolly (right) say they were forced into the drug trade by gun-wielding gangsters
The most hard-hitting revelation in the programme, however, was not that drugs were so easily available on the Balearic island — hardly front-page news — but the fact that the people who controlled the illicit trade were mainly British, in particular, gangs from Manchester and Liverpool.
Ibiza has become an extension of their turf in Moss Side or Toxteth, giving them access to a much bigger market. Around 700,000 Britons travel to Ibiza every year, and one in three of those aged between 16 and 34 takes drugs during their visit, according to a recent survey.
This is the background to the story you are about to read — a chain of events that culminated in two girls, Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum Connolly, both 20, being found with cocaine worth £1.5 million as they waited for a flight out of Peru last Tuesday.
The women claim they were kidnapped in Ibiza, flown to the South American country at gunpoint and forced by gangsters to become drugs mules. In other words, one day they were simply having a good time, like thousands of other young people on the island, the next they were facing up to 25 years in a Peruvian hell-hole jail.
What’s next? Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid could be set for a lengthy jail term
Few really believe Melissa, a sales assistant from Lenzie, near Glasgow, and Michaella, a photography student and part-time model, from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, are hardened criminals. But does their account stand up to scrutiny?
Not according to the head of the Ibiza police unit responsible for countering organised crime, first sergeant Alberto Arian Barilla, who says he does not believe the pair were acting under duress.
‘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,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘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.’
Michaella worked at Bar Amsterdam, after arriving on Ibiza in early June.
It seems Melissa and Michaella’s paths did not cross — not to begin with, anyway.
They lived in separate apartment blocks catering for British holiday workers: Melissa with two Scottish friends at the Las Pyramides complex in San Antonio Bay, and Michaella first at the Es Vedra flats, close to the bars, strip clubs and nightclubs in the heart of San Antonio, then briefly at another address with her boyfriend, who served drinks at Bar Amsterdam.
Staff at such bars, many from Britain, descend on the island in droves every summer, but sometimes struggle to survive on the notoriously low pay. Typically, they receive less than 25 euros (£21) for a six-hour shift handing out flyers. This makes them vulnerable to the dealers.
That a growing number face financial problems is evident from a sign put up by the landlord at the complex where Michaella was staying. ‘If we have to come to your door for money for rent then you will be fined 50 euros,’ it reads.
‘Please be aware that your grace period starts from the date on your contract and lasts three days. If the money is not in the office by 6.30pm, your locks will be changed and you will be evicted.’
The venue to be at: Pacha nightclub, Ibiza, is one classic haunt of avid ravers
Many bar promoters — girls dressed in hotpants, bikini tops and spike heels to entice male customers off the street — are based here; some find more dubious ways to supplement their meagre wages.
This was confirmed by a court case two months ago when 11 members of a Merseyside gang — led by an individual called Sacher Cohen and his right-hand man, Mitch Justin White, a painter and decorator from Canvey Island, Essex — were jailed for a total of 32 years for running an extensive drugs network on Ibiza.
Cohen and White used dancers and PR girls, among others, to sell drugs to tourists.
‘Normally, they [the gangs] target people who need cash urgently to pay their rent or just to carry on partying,’ a senior Spanish police officer told us this week.
‘Eventually, they may offer them up to 6,000 euros (around £5,115) to smuggle for them.’
One woman who was persuaded by Cohen and White to do just that was arrested after stepping off an Ibiza-bound flight from Manchester in 2010 with £150,000 worth of cocaine disguised as candles.
Alexandra Nicklin, 30, the daughter of a company director from Salford, is serving two years in a Spanish jail.
How, though, did Melissa and Michaella get sucked into this world? They have portrayed themselves as innocent victims: they had nothing to do with the drugs trade, they said, there were no financial ‘inducements’ and they had never been in trouble with the police before.
Yet, for all their protestations, what follows will make uneasy reading for their families.
We first spoke to a girl who worked round the corner from Michaella and wishes to remain anonymous.
She doesn’t know what happened in Melissa and Michaella’s case, but admitted she and other girls she knows have been sucked into drug-dealing as a way to support their party lifestyle.
‘We all do it — it’s so easy to get into,’ she says. ‘You get, say, 100 pills and then sell them for three times the price you paid for them.
‘It’s easy money. The trouble starts if you can’t pay back the money to the dealers.
‘Girls buy the pills on tick [agreeing to pay later when they’ve sold them on] and either take the drugs themselves, lose them or spend all the money. They end up having to work as smugglers as repayment.’
Two British girls who live close to Melissa’s former flat in Ibiza said: ‘We talked to her all the time because she was always at the communal pool outside the block.
‘Melissa was always sitting round the pool talking about how many drugs she had taken, particularly ketamine. It’s all she talked about.’
British girls laughing and eating donuts after arrest
Revealed: Neighbours of Melissa Reid have told how she allegedly boasted about taking drugs. And right, Michaella McCollum Connolly is not believed to have been friends with Reid
They knew her throughout her time in Ibiza and saw her most days.
Of course, the claims don’t disprove Melissa’s account of being forced to smuggle drugs.
The girls say they were frequently kept awake by parties at Melissa’s flat during the seven weeks she was on Ibiza.
‘She took pills as well and would have parties in her flat at 7am because she was high.’
‘Melissa told us she was sacked from two bars, but it didn’t matter because she didn’t need to work — she didn’t need the money.’
Speaking of the drug trade, one of the girls says: ‘It’s very easy if you are working in a bar or outside a bar to get into selling drugs.
‘It’s often men from Liverpool who approach you. They tell you they can give you 100 pills for three euros [£2.50] each and then you can resell them for ten euros [£8.50].
‘I always say no, but it sometimes feels as we are the only people in Ibiza who are not involved in drugs.’
Looking good: Michaella McCollum Connolly lived life to the full while working in Ibiza
The girls told how one of Melissa’s flatmates returned to Scotland because she was so fed up with the other girl’s lifestyle.
‘She left early because she said she couldn’t deal with how wild the apartment was,’ the girls said. One of the establishments Melissa worked at was San Antonio’s Millennium Bar.
When asked whether she had been sacked, a manager replied: ‘She worked here for two days, but did not get the job. She did not fit in at the bar and with the people who work here.’
Melissa and Michaella vehemently denied these allegations during an interview with the Mail at Lima’s maximum security Dirandro police station. But there are a number of unanswered questions in their stories.
Not least the identity of the charming British man they claim ‘groomed’ them for the drug gangs.
This sinister individual with a northern accent is said to have mixed with the girls socially before delivering them separately to Colombian gangsters in ‘safe houses’ in Ibiza.
They were then apparently ‘escorted’ onto flights via Madrid to Peru. It was only after they had been ‘abducted’ that the two girls met for the first time.
The existence of the mysterious man came to light in a Facebook message to Melissa’s family from one of their daughter’s friends.
The woman said she felt ‘guilty’ for introducing Melissa to a man from Manchester, someone she has since discovered supplied ‘drugs girls’ to gangs for a living.
However, when Melissa spoke to a red-top tabloid a few days ago, she described the man as a ‘typical wide-boy London geezer’.
‘He always had a smile on his face and a compliment in his mouth,’ she said of him.
We have established who this man is. He works as an unlicensed taxi driver in San Antonio and has a close working relationship with at least one club in the resort, where he is frequently called to pick up revellers. He lives in an apartment in San Antonio Bay.
At the moment, that is all we can say for sure about him.
The senior Spanish police officer quoted earlier is convinced that whatever happened was an entirely British operation.
‘We are 95 per cent certain it was a British organisation that has targeted these girls,’ he said.
He may be wrong, of course. But rival gangs from the North-West of England continue to dominate the drug trade on Ibiza. Many stay in local hotels while conducting their ‘business’.
‘The police came and arrested two men and they were in and out within two minutes,’ said one hotel owner whose premises were the subject of a recent drugs bust.
‘The men look like any other holidaymakers. You just don’t know who is booking into your rooms.’
Game’s up: Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid at the moment of their arrest at Lima’s international airport on suspicion of trying to smuggle 11 kilos of cocaine out of the country
This is unlikely to change any time soon. For police privately accept they cannot stem the tide and thus turn a blind eye, if not to the dealers, certainly to those who take drugs.
There is also another reason. Ibiza’s tourist industry depends on the drug trade: no drugs, no tourists.
This is why this recent story involving two British girls is unlikely to be the last, especially given the tales swirling around the Ibiza club scene about how easy — and lucrative — drug smuggling can prove.
‘Anyone who’s caught always claims they were forced into it, but I know loads of people who did it knowing full well what they were doing,’ says one former Ibiza club-goer.
‘The gangs give you cash and you get a week of luxury in Peru. I had mates who did it and they just said they were prepared to take the risk of being caught, then boast about the buzz of getting away with it when they’re back.
‘For every person who’s caught and makes headlines, there are ten who got away and are dancing in Pacha [the Ibiza super-club] telling people how easy it was.’
Is that the real story? Were these young women coerced or just stupid and naive? Either way, they certainly have some questions to answer.
Families visit Brit girls jailed in Peru
‘I know what I am wishing for this year’: Melissa Reid celebrates her 20th with a cake from her father in Peru jail
It was hardly the 20th birthday she had been anticipating when she flew to Ibiza on holiday two months’ ago.
But as Melissa Reid is presented with a cake by her father in a Peruvian police station, she puts on a brave face for him and gives him a kiss on the cheek.
Only when the detectives and armed guards join in for a quick chorus of ’Happy Birthday’ does she look a little awkward.
Occasion: Melissa Reid with her father William celebrating her 20th birthday at Dirandro police station, Lima, Peru where she is being held on suspicion of smuggling cocaine
Hopeful: Melissa Reid didn’t imagine she would be ‘celebrating’ her birthday inside a Peruvian police station
Blowing out the candles on her chocolate fudge cake, she wryly jokes: ‘I know what I am wishing for this year.’
A beaming detective points to the cake and asks optimistically, ‘Are you happy?’, which is met with a small smile, but a firm, ‘no’.
Officers remove her handcuffs and allow her to sit next to her father Billy, 53, who gives her a long hug.
She says: ‘I am trying to pretend it is not my birthday. If I think about it, I will cry. It will be too hard.’
Melissa was supposed to celebrate her birthday with friend from Glasgow, Rebecca Hughes, 20, in an Ibiza super-club.
Instead, she and Michaella McCollum Connolly are facing up to 25 years in jail after they were accused of trying to smuggle £1.5million worth of cocaine out of Peru.
Happy memories: Melissa Reid was arrested at Lima airport on suspicion of trying to smuggle £1million of cocaine out of Peru
Opening a card from her mother Debbie – who stayed in Lenzie, Glasgow, with her other children Liam, 22, and twins Stephanie and Jennifer, 18 – Melissa looks emotional.
Her mother had hastily written a spare birthday card she found in the house – rather than a ‘daughter’ card – when she knew her husband was flying out to be with Melissa.
The perfume she had bought Melissa for her 20th remains untouched on her dressing table, awaiting her eventual return.
Mrs Reid, 53, an administrator for the National Grid, said: ‘It is a hard day but at least her Dad is with her.’
Aware that their first formal police interview would take place yesterday, she ‘celebrated’ her birthday on Thursday night.
Melissa and Michaella eat a birthday meal of chicken and chips brought by her father and share the cake among the officers.
Hot food is not normally allowed in the office, but the staff make an exception for the scared young women.
Nodding at the cake, which says ‘20’, one detective shakes his head and explains he too has a daughter, adding in broken English: ‘They are so young’.
Melissa said: ‘They have been nice to us. One of the main detectives even said to us that he believed us that were forced to do this, but that it was really hard to prove that in Peru.’
As Melissa is re-handcuffed and led down to her cell, she tells her Dad she loves him and he tells her ‘I love you too pal’.
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