Peru drug charge women 'are drop in the ocean'

Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid in court in Callao on 21 August 2013
Image caption Michaella McCollum (left) and Melissa Reid in court last month

As two young UK women prepare to appear before a Peruvian judge on drug-smuggling charges, the country's former anti-drugs chief tells the BBC their arrests are just a "drop in the ocean".

Amid reports that one or both of the women - Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid - are set to admit trying to smuggle the drugs found in their luggage, the BBC has been told that for every person successfully stopped carrying narcotics at Lima's international airport, many more get through undetected.

Ms McCollum, from Dungannon in Northern Ireland, and Ms Reid, of Lenzie near Glasgow, have been in a Lima jail since their arrest in early August.

Both are just 20 years old and still face several years in Peruvian custody, even if they are eventually given reduced sentences under any plea bargain.

Not only does the case against them look strong, even according to some of their supporters, but admitting the charges might be their best chance of a transfer to a less harsh prison and the possibility of parole after three or four years of their sentence.

Image caption The cocaine found in food packages had a street value of £1.5m

Initially the young women, who had travelled to Peru from Ibiza where they had been working over the summer, said they had been coerced and threatened into carrying several blocks of pure cocaine hidden in food packaging.

That version of events has now changed and, like more than 140 other "mules" arrested at Lima airport this year, the women must await their fate.

Peru is the world's largest source of raw coca and "pasta base" from which cocaine is eventually produced.

How that is exported has changed subtly over the years, says Ricardo Soberon, who quit his post as Peru's drugs tsar after falling out with the government over the direction and effectiveness of the so-called war on drugs.

Image caption The pair have attracted much media interest

Although there are still spectacularly large shipments of narcotics by sea and by air (including the recent capture in Paris of more than a tonne of cocaine on board an Air France flight from Caracas) much of the trade is now conducted by sending thousands of mules to Europe with drugs either concealed inside their bodies or in their luggage.

It is less risky for the cartels and they can afford to lose large amounts of narcotics because much more gets through than can ever be seized.

"They're expendable and replaceable", says Mr Soberon.

"If they're arrested there's always someone else on the street, a Peruvian or someone from Spain or Europe ready to be hired to smuggle drugs."

He is highly critical of a government policy that, he says, merely targets the small fry while the really big fish get away - men who are very careful not to be caught with "drugs in their pockets".

Peru's government sees things differently.

Encouraged and supported by foreign agencies, it says it is winning the war. More than one tonne of cocaine, seized across Peru, is brought to a warehouse in central Lima every week before being destroyed.

Image caption Drugs are incinerated on a regular basis in Lima

Col Tito Perez, chief of investigations at Peru's anti-drugs police unit, said the profiling of travellers at Lima airport and other borders was very effective and producing results.

He warned would-be couriers that the risk simply was not worth it.

Even as I was speaking to the colonel at his unit's headquarters in central Lima, a Jeep drew up with three more captured mules, rueing their bad luck at being captured.

I spoke briefly to the three, all handcuffed and almost certainly destined to a long period in one of Lima's less than salubrious prisons. One was from South Africa, another from Mexico and one a Polish national - a rather sad testimony to the international nature of the trade in narcotics.

Like the two young UK women, they bemoaned their luck and said they had been pressured into carrying the cocaine.

But there is little sympathy here in Peru for the smugglers, however young or naive they may be.

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