Part Two of my interview with the Peru Two as printed in the Sunday Independent on Sunday 5th January. Part One is below:
Peru Two: ‘Sometimes you just need a hug from your mum’
Michaella and Melissa talk about life on the inside, their friendship and bugs
THE Virgin de Fatima prison in the suburb of Chorrillos in Lima is just a stone’s throw from the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.
When I went there to try to visit Michaella McCollum, there was some confusion and I think the warden ended up thinking I was a relation. Whatever, it got me in the gate.
I was stamped numerous times, searched meticulously, made remove my leggings, shades and had a bottle of Coca-Cola taken off me before I was brought into a small courtyard, which had a kiosk, some public phones and a few tables and chairs. I was carrying two yellow plastic bags containing sweets, chocolate and drinks.
Very soon, two girls came walking towards me. I had only asked to see Michaella, but when she came out, she was accompanied by her fellow drug mule, Melissa Reid. They looked somewhat perplexed, but smiling gracefully nonetheless.
Of course I had read some of the nasty stuff on Facebook, so it was nice to discover that they were not a couple of hard cases. I found the girls to be very friendly and grounded, who used bad language less than I did.
“We didn’t know each other before the ordeal,” said Melissa. “It’s really strange, but we lived down the road from each other, so we probably saw each other. Now we get on so well, but we’ve never done girly things together like go shopping, have a cup of tea or go to the movies.”
Michaella added: “We weren’t allowed to drink the entire time before we were caught, so we haven’t even had a drink together but we are the best of friends.”
They find the media attention bizarre. When I spoke to them they were facing anything up to 15 years in prison, but in the end got six years and eight months.
It was natural that there would be so much interest in the fate of these two pretty young women, though it may wane some, now that their fate has been decided.
“The media attention is bizarre,” Michaella says. “We’re infamous, rather than famous, I guess.”
I decide to ask a totally trivial question, but one I know has been asked at home many times by those who have seen her frequent television appearances going to and from court. “What about the bun on your head? I think I’ve seen more of them on the streets since your incarceration.”
“It’s just a bun,” she says. The interest in her appearance is a mystery to her. “I don’t get it.”
They both shake their heads.
Then it occurs to Michaella to ask me the obvious question. “Who are you?”
I explained I was an Irish photographer working in South America and that I also did some writing. Sadly I was not allowed to bring a camera into the prison.
“I did photography too,” said Michaella. She said she wished she had a camera so that she could document her life in prison.
Then she noticed the stamps the prison staff had put on my arm. She told me that they indicated I was a visitor and the person I was coming to see was a drug-smuggler.
For a couple of young women who have been detained in a Peruvian prison for months now, the girls look surprisingly well. The first thing I noticed is that they are a lot prettier than you would imagine from seeing them on the television. Their hair is nice and their teeth sparkle — they said they have received gifts of toothbrushes and letters from Ireland and beyond.
The first months passed very quickly as they dealt with lawyers and prosecutors and police and judges. Now they reckon life will slow down a bit and the reality of their situation for the foreseeable future will dawn on them.
Michaella says: “Our friends are back in college or working, but we won’t do any of those things for now. Our lives have changed forever and we have no idea what we’ll do when we come out, only we want to do everything together.”
The girls are in the low-security section of the small prison, where inmates are mostly petty criminals. “Theft, stealing a wallet will get you in here,” Michaella says. “You get in trouble for small things here too, that’s why the prisons are so packed.”
They get woken at 6am, while lights are out at 10pm. “There is Spanish TV, but no other luxuries. We have some cockroaches, not too many though. Someone left us a Chinese meal in the kiosk and the box was covered in cockroaches, but we ate it nonetheless,” says Melissa.
“We sleep in the same room with a hole for a toilet. We haven’t seen any kind of violence in prison here and no drink or drugs or anything like that. We spend most of the days sleeping and reading. Obviously there’s not really much else to do, but at least we’ll learn Spanish.”
“A far cry from Ibiza,” I say. “Yeah I was having the time of my life,” Michaella says.
Now they have a lengthy sentence to serve as well as a fine of $3,500 for the 11kg of cocaine they tried to bring through Lima airport on August 6 last. “At first we thought we’d get 15 years, so the possibility of six is not so bad,” Michaella says.
When I met the girls they thought they might get benefits — a concession that would see them serving only two years. That did not happen.
Talking about that fateful day at the airport, Michaella says: “It was all in Spanish, so we had no idea what they were saying. When we were in the holding rooms, there were lots of other drugs there, not just the ones in our bags. There was a guy there who had swallowed drugs and what he had swallowed was sitting on the table, it was pretty grim.”
Melissa says: “The first 15 days were hell because there was only cold water and no toilet paper and hardly any food. We couldn’t really wash our hair or anything and we had the same few bits of clothes.”
Now they must wait and see where they will serve their sentence.
Wherever it is, the girls know it will not be easy and it will take all their resources to persevere.
“We have each other, which helps but we do cry a lot too. It’s not easy not having our parents and family around. Sometimes you just need a hug from your mum,” Melissa says.
BARBARA MCCARTHY – 05 JANUARY 2014
Before I visited the Peru Two recently, I had been to see one of the two major women’s prisons, and made inquiries about the other. One of these will undoubtedly be their new ‘home’ for the foreseeable future.
The prison I visited is called Santa Monica. There I met Bronwyn Atherton, 28, a third-generation Irish-Australian prisoner. Bronwyn looks like someone I would meet for coffee in town with her make-up done to perfection, wearing funky tights and a short skirt.
“Getting caught is totally surreal,” she says. She was caught with 18kg of cocaine at Lima Airport in 2008, while trying to board a flight to Paris.
“I only saw the bag when I got to the airport. Every voice in my head was telling me that this was the worst decision ever and I was going to get caught, but I did it anyway,” she says.
“I was handed a bag weighing 48kg outside, 18kg of which was cocaine. I could hardly lift it. As soon as I walked into the airport, the security guard came straight up to me and asked me to open the bag. I said, ‘I don’t have a key for the lock’. They pulled me into a small room and stuck this poker through the bag and I could see that there was cocaine at the end of it.”
Besides cocaine, Bronwyn says the bag contained jumpers, cushions, blankets and all the things you need to go to jail. “The way it works is that the gangs pay off security people at the airports. They are on low wages so it can be anything up to €1,000 or more.
“They also get a bonus for catching people. In my case I had 18kg in my bag, but I was only done for 17kg as they kept one for themselves. Often they return the lot back to the cartels.
“After that you go through the motions. In my case they didn’t launch a big investigation, they weren’t out to find the guys who put me up to it, and they just got my details. I spent 15 days in holding, then was shipped around a bit, got interrogated and fingerprinted a hundred times. They just do paperwork and then you go to prison.”
So, I ask: “Why don’t mules like the Peru Two try to scream for help before they get to the airport?”
“Rats get shot,” says Bronwyn, who refused to rat out her Colombian ‘uncle’ and his henchmen who were involved with her attempt to smuggle the cocaine.
“I know a girl who ratted and got shot as soon as she walked out the gates.” As she says this she claps her hands together. “I’m not going to go through this only to be shot at the gates when I walk free. No way, mate.”
“So are you innocent?” I ask?
“Oh no, I’m guilty,” she says, “I was going to get €15,000, which for me was a lot.” But then she tells me her heartbreaking back story.
Having been sexually abused as a child, she became a young mother at the age of 19. Three years later, her son died and Bronwyn says she went on a path of destruction.
“I ended up getting raped three times. The second guy who raped me inAustralia gave me HIV.”
She was in South Africa when she found out. A chance encounter with a Nigerian drug gang shortly afterwards led her into the murky world of drug muling. “I was in a cafe in Pretoria and ordered lunch, even though I had no means to pay for it. I was starving, and then this guy came up to me and told me he was a drug and arms trafficker. I let him buy me lunch and then met his friends.”
It led to a series of mind-blowing events and cross-country travels as well as a third rape. Eventually she ended up in Peru. “I had just had the worst things happen to me that could ever happen to a human being, so of course I was going to make the worst decision of my life.”
I ask Bronwyn: “What are conditions like here in Santa Monica prison?”
“The rooms are cramped, but not filled with 40 people. There are four people in my room and no shortage of cockroaches. About half the community is made up of murderers.”
Just then a women comes up to sell us chewing gum. She gives me a toothless grin.
“She seems nice,” I say, “what did she do?”
“She murdered her husband. That’s not the worst; there’s one woman here who murdered her three children and made soup out of them and fed it to her husband.
“Another woman murdered a pregnant woman and then cut the unborn child out of her stomach. That woman over there,” pointing to a lady opposite, “she’s just here because her sister left her husband’s dead body in her house. The sister is here too, though. These people are psychos.”
Santa Monica is much bigger than Virgin de Fatima and has a nice courtyard with trees and shrubs. “I’d go insane without the trees,” Bronwyn says. The food, surprisingly, is not bad and from my visits, the chicken and rice dishes can be highly recommended, while the desserts are as good as you’d get at any half- decent Irish hotel carvery, but they don’t come cheap by Peruvian standards.
If you can’t pay, you eat what is provided by the system. Which is not good.
“I got food poisoning this week from the free prison food and when I ran into the toilets I nearly got sick on top of a new inmate. She raped another woman along with her boyfriend. I managed to turn a corner and missed her in the end, by just getting sick in the plain old toilet,” Bronwyn says.
“We used to have a choir here and we have Christmas celebrations where we blow up balloons and have a bit of a celebration. The courtyard by the cells stays open later too and I have friends over for Christmas dinner in the meeting area. One year we went and sang down at Virgin de Fatima, but the choir leader died, so there is no more choir.'”
But she says there is a woodwork class to keep her occupied. She painted a beautiful carved wooden box for me, which I have on my fireplace.
“I also painted the mural at the entrance to the prison.”
She also showed me her beautiful paintings, which will be sent to Australia, and exhibited to raise money for her.
This place seems pleasant enough for a prison, but everything here costs money, toilet paper, food, everything has to be bought and it’s not cheap. Lunch costs up to €4. We even pay for the time we spend at the table in the courtyard.
“What about if you don’t have any money?” I ask. “Then you’re f***ed, I get money from sponsors and people put money into my account. The prisoners are running the prisons here. It’s a business, like a micro-economy. We pay for everything, including the security people’s wages.”
The only other European mule at Santa Monica, who was caught with 46kg of cocaine, is a Dutch woman called Francesca. She is serving her 11th year of a 15-year sentence. In her mid-forties, she seems happy enough with her lot. “I was told I would be bringing two litres of liquid cocaine in my bag,”she laughs.
“Santa Monica is the best prison in South America. I don’t understand why the girls aren’t here,” she says while lazily gazing around with a few missing teeth as though she were poolside in Vegas.
But Carla, a girl who sells clothes on visitor days, is less sanguine. “No, you don’t want to be in prison here,” she says. “People can get sick easily, there are a lot of women here and some of them are drug addicts, though it’s not the same as men’s prisons, where they run the place and there is more violence.
“I think the Peruvian government wants to make an example of the two girls,” says Carla. “For some reason this case is big, even though people get caught every day.”
“Even if they are out in two years, they may have to see out their probation in Lima,” Bronwyn says. “I know a girl who was set up by her friend and had drugs put in her bag. The friend is a crack head and she worked with the gang. They both got caught and my friend got two years. The girl who set her up bought herself out by paying €30,000, while my friend is stuck in Peru for another four years on parole.”
“Most of the foreigners are being shipped out of Santa Monica so chances are they will be going to Ancon 2,” Bronwyn says.
Ancon 2 is a prison, purpose-built along modern US lines. It’s three hours outside Lima. “It’s a ‘supermax’, so it is a lot stricter,” Bronwyn informs me. “If you wanted to see the girls there, you would have to meet them separately. Santa Monica wasn’t built as a prison; it’s an old convent, while Ancon is like the American-style prisons. On the plus side there are more foreigners there and people do get to study and have more courses available to them,” she adds.
That seems to be the best the Peru Two have to look forward to over the next four or five years.
“There is an opportunity for a deal to go home earlier,” Loretta von der Horst, a Peruvian journalist who has taken an interest in the case, tells me.
“But only if the two countries have a deal together and it’s unclear to me if this is the case.”