A Depressing Guide to the Classic British Drug-Mule Arrest
I sense Michaella McCollum Connolly may regret deciding to wear a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "La Vie Est Belle" as she headed towards the departures hall of Lima airport. It is very important, when ferrying drugs between countries on the orders of sinister Cockneys who’ve spent weeks grooming you, that you don’t wear any slogans or clothing that may later seem "ironic" when your family sees the looped clip of you being paraded before the cameras on Sky News. For her, it now seems that La Vie Est Terrible. Certainly the next three or four years, depending on how Peruvian justice perceives their version of events.
The girls say they met a man from London in Ibiza. They say he relieved them of their passports and handed them over to a Peruvian drug gang, who flew them to South America and coerced them into muling 2.3 million pounds' worth of coke with guns to their heads and dossiers on their families back home in Belfast and Glasgow. But the blinding bit of T-shirt irony is the one thing that’s really remarkable about this case. Otherwise this had all the classic hallmarks of a British drug-mule nabbing. We’ve seen this story so often now it has its own cinematic language. Mainly because it’s one of those stories that is always at its end by the time we get to it. It’s never a "developing" story. It has developed. It is over. They’re nabbed. Done. Now they just need to get their pictures taken and for their family to lodge a doomed appeal to the Foreign Office for repatriation.
The British-drugs-mule-nabbed pageant has many moves, but it always turns out the same in the end.
Act 1: The Watching Public's Sense of Secondhand Terror as the Mules Realize They're Stuck in a Foreign Country and No One There Gives a Shit About Them
Peruvian police didn't waste any time releasing footage of the pair being caught. Michaella, a native of Belfast, and her friend, Melissa Reid, 19 and Scottish, looked like they’d just been called into the headmaster’s office for burning down the school. It's a moment of stunning emotional nudity—you can almost pinpoint the exact instant where two young women suddenly become certain of the enormity of what lays ahead. “Oh yeah…” their faces decree. “We might have had a future about an hour ago...” Of course, Michaella and Melissa could not have known that the friends they were making on holiday had links to South American drug cartels. But in the same way that Herzog’s text-n-drive film will scare you into keeping the phone in the glovebox, this video should be used to convince kids that getting chummy with strange Ibiza sugar daddies is generally a bad idea.
Act 2: The Media's Inevitable Trawling of Facebook for "Background"
Michaella of all people really should have understood the dress-sense thing. The Facebook pictures the tabloids dug up all show her in a series of get-ups crafted to land somewhere between Blade Runner, manga cosplay, and every Kardashian-worshipping 16-year-old’s best duckface. She’d picked out her Facebook profile pics with the sort of image-making intensity only the heroically self-involved can muster. No one can be expected to make the right fashion choices when they've got an angry South American pressing a gun to their temple, yet short of wearing a picture of Alfred E. Neuman with "What, Me, Worry?" scribbled on it in comic sans, she couldn’t have made a grander sartorial misstep.
Act 3: Images Are Released of the Cocaine Itself, Standing There Proudly Before the Cameras Despite All the Trouble and Misery It Has Caused
Soon, the cameras rolled through the traditional cutting-open-of-the bags ceremony. The swabbing. The weighing. The 18 packets of cocaine that border guards found in the duo's luggage were mainly wrapped in Quaker Oats packets. Despite the elaborate production values of their mule job, no one seems to have made the point that if you are taking several bags of Quaker Oats through customs, people are going to get suspicious. They will probably throw you in jail even if it just turns out to be Quaker Oats, because, well… what sort of pervert needs 18 bags of Quaker Oats for a single plane journey? It's almost as if the Peruvian cartel wanted the girls to get caught and they were just a decoy. Wait...
Act 4: The Giddying Sense of an Expanded World Suddenly Contracting
Michaella said she had been "hostessing" in Ibiza. This was clearly her summer of personal reinvention: the big life moment of liberation from childhood and rebirth in the white heat of the White Isle party season. She was being cool, doing awesomely, thanks very much. Every week going to cooler places, meeting cooler people, as her friendly neighborhood drug gangs shone the sparkly light of $$$ in her eyes. Come to another boat party. Have some more clothes. Have some more drinks. This is how things are in the adult world and she was self-evidently brilliant at the whole adulthood thing. Until…
I once interviewed a drug mule. A tiny middle-aged woman who lived in the baddest badlands of Cape Town. She’d needed some money for an emergency, a Nigerian gentleman and his friends had been there to provide it, and later, there was payback. They took her shopping. Put her in the fanciest clothes they could find. And then sent her off to Brazil. In order to deflect suspicion, they’d given her a bundle of cash, and told her to take ten days' holiday before returning to consume her final meal of condoms.
I wondered how this woman who’d never left Cape Town must’ve felt in that ten-day eye of the storm. How her head must’ve expanded as she realized that there was a whole world out there, full of fabulous stuff she’d never dreamed of. I thought about her prowling round her posh hotel room at 1 AM in a complimentary dressing gown, high on general over-stimulation, quietly goggling at the room service and satellite TV. Then I thought about how her world would have equally rapidly shrunk again, but this time to the size of a prison cell. All she really could find to say on the subject when I spoke to her some years later was that the holiday was "very nice." The sum for which she risked her life and spent the better part of a decade in jail? About $1,500.
Drug gangs are like evil fucking crocodiles eating popcorn the way they can afford to chew through these people.
Act 5: The National Stomach-Churn at the Prospect of a "Hellhole" Foreign Jail
At least that lady's relatives back home knew that Brazilian jails could be no worse than South African ones. Michaella and Melissa, on the other hand, are in danger of spending some time in what the British press are already insisting on calling a "hellhole." Sadly, this sort of colonial mentality seems hard to break away from. They definitely have wi-fi in Peru, and decent libraries, and a bill of rights, and food hygiene inspectors, and it’s actually possible that many of their prisons are, not twee exactly, but really kind of OK in the grander scheme of things. But for our journalists, the words "foreign prison" are surgically attached to the word "hellhole." You wonder sometimes whether, when foreigners find themselves incarcerated in British jails, their press shivers with disgust too. "They force you to watch snooker on TV in there. They make you roll your own cigarettes. I tell you: some of the MPs you meet in there, brother... you don’t even wanna know what Chris Huhne’s like close-up."
Act 6: The Mortified Family Outraged at the Foreign Office's Inability to Conjure Up Fantasy Justice
We’ve already heard murmurings from the girls’ families. Naturally, they are still sure this is all one big misunderstanding that will be cleared up soon enough. (“Now listen here, Peru... I don’t know what you think you’re doing with my daughter, but it’s time for her to come home…”) We’ve yet to enter the next phase, where they do the only thing they can do, bar wait until 2040 for justice to run its course: start campaigns to get the girls re-patriated. With minor crimes, this can work. With drugs? Almost never. Yet knowing that has never stopped a Facebook group from forming. There’s presently a British grandmother on death row in Bali. Is William Hague sending a gunboat to Java to bring her back? Nope.
There are 40 Britons on death row in strung-out parts of the globe. Twelve just for drugs. It's a desperately depressing state of affairs but the HM Government seem prepared to lose a few here and there, and drugs is never a battle they feel like fighting. We all like to believe we live in an omnipotent bastion of civilization but the Foreign Office is not every British citizen’s super-daddy. It can’t make it all better. It can’t drive 50 miles to pick you up from Luton on a Friday night because you missed the last train, no matter your excuse.
For now, Michaella and Melissa remain holed up in a maximum-security police station in Lima. You'd hope, really, that their muling story has a redemptive seventh act.
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.
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