She ran cocaine to save boy's life. But the gang killed him anyway

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The Independent Online
A GRANDMOTHER'S claim that she smuggled cocaine into Britain because of threats to her grandson's life appears to have been proven tragically true two months after she was sent to prison.

A Crown Court judge was sceptical when Lucella Torres Susunaga, 51, said five-year-old Brandon Garcia would have been killed if she had refused to act as a "mule" for Colombian gangsters. And the court refused to allow her to change her plea from guilty to not guilty. Now, evidence has emerged that the boy was shot dead when the gang heard that Mrs Susunaga, a Colombian national, had attempted to raise the defence of duress.

Mrs Susunaga was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court on 21 June. Her last-minute defence rested on the claim that she had been forced to smuggle the drug after a Colombian gang had abducted Brandon and threatened to kill him.

During the hearing, her barrister informed Judge William Rose she wanted to change her plea to not guilty. But, according to a lawyer instructed by Mrs Susunaga's husband to review her grounds for appeal, Judge Rose was "sceptical" that the abduction of the boy related to her involvement in the importation of 530 grams of cocaine into Britain.

The court is allowed to accept a late change of plea from guilty to not guilty in exceptional circumstances.

Last week, Mrs Susunaga's husband, Petrus Poell, was sent a Colombian police report, which records that the boy was found murdered by the side of a road on 1 August. He had been beaten around the head and then shot in the face.

A note left beside the body, addressed to Mrs Susunaga, said the killing was the consequence of "not keeping her mouth shut." It added: "You didn't understand the present you got on 25 April." Mr Poell believes this referred to the date the gang released the boy after Mrs Susunaga had agreed to smuggle the drugs.

Alured Darlington, the solicitor asked by Mrs Susunaga to review the grounds for a possible appeal, said that Judge Rose's scepticism over the kidnapping related to the fact that the child had been released and therefore held no threat for her. But Mr Poell said his wife was in a British prison and had not been told of the boy's release, although the court was unaware of this.

Mr Poell said the Colombian mafia had found out about her decision to raise the defence of duress in an article in the Ecuadorian national newspaper published the day after she was sentenced.

Mr Poell said he now wanted the courts to know the full story behind his wife's actions.

Mr Poell was released by police after he told them he didn't know his wife was carrying any drugs until their arrest at Waterloo station on 22 April. He claims his wife, who holds a Dutch and Colombian passport, was tied to the drugs gang after her son became adrugs runner on the borders of Colombia and Ecuador.

Mrs Susunaga asked the Colombian gangsters to let her buy her son out of the gang. They told her that she must pay $70,000 (pounds 43,750), which she agreed to do, but she soon fell behind with the instalments. Smuggling cocaine into England was in part-payment of her debt to the gang. Mr Poell said the gang kidnapped her grandson to make sure she would not go back on the deal.

In court on 21 June, Judge Rose asked Mrs Susunaga why she had not told the court about the threat to her grandson from the start.

Her late decision to change her plea did not impress the judge, said Mr Poell.

"She was compelled to keep silent," he said. In a letter she wrote to her husband from High Point Prison in Newmarket, she explained what effect this silence had had on her: "All was always fear to talk, for always I knew it results in dead bodies when you talk."

Mr Poell said the news of her grandson's death has caused her to fear for the safety of her remaining relatives in Colombia. The murder note had added: "We are going to finish your whole family."