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UK pair Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid expected to plead not guilty in Peru cocaine smuggling case

British women maintain they were forced to carry drug stash by gangsters

Two British women suspected of attempting to smuggle a large stash of cocaine out of Peru appeared in court today to learn whether they would be formally charged.

They could face up to three years in prison awaiting their trial, if they are charged and refused bail.

Police say they have wrapped up their initial investigation. The women were due to find out what charges they face at the pre-trial hearing and were expected to plead not guilty.

Northern Ireland-born Michaella McCollum Connolly, 20, a photography student, and Melissa Reid, 19, from Scotland, were arrested earlier in the month at Lima airport after being caught with around 11kg of cocaine hidden inside their luggage disguised in food packages, Peruvian police say. They had been due to fly to Madrid.

They deny drug trafficking and say they were forced to take the drugs by a gang of Colombian gangsters who kidnapped them on the Spanish party island of Ibiza. The armed gang coerced the women to fly to Peru, they claim.

Entering the court handcuffed they looked pale and shocked.

The case has attracted a blizzard of media attention in the South American country now thought to have overtaken Colombia as the world’s largest producer of the class-A drug.

Fresh doubt emerged last night over photographs that allegedly show the women drinking beer on a beach and standing on a balcony days before they were arrested in the Peruvian capital,  according to the Daily Mirror.

Peruvian police say the photo could have been taken in Ibiza and not in Peru, as the women claim.

Ms Reid’s father, William, who has flown to South America, questioned the photographs, telling the Daily Mail his daughter never drank beer.

“I want to know who took that picture of them on their balcony. Was it taken by a third person or by a minder, and who was drinking the beer?” he said to the newspaper.

“That wasn’t Melissa’s beer in the photo because I have never in my entire life seen her drink beer. She drinks a lot of water and, if she is drinking, it would be vodka.”

Mr Reid said he believes the story given to him by the two women that they were forced to take pictures of themselves to make them look as though they were on holiday together.

Spanish police have questioned the women’s claim that they were snatched by a gang in Ibiza.

First Sergeant Alberto Arian Barilla, head of the Ibiza police unit responsible for countering organised crime, told the BBC: “In my experience, I don’t think these two women were forced to do this because – particularly when you go to South America – you need to pass several controls.

“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.”

Peruvian detectives have been investigating the women’s version of events by visiting the town of Cusco – popular with backpackers visiting the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. The women claim they were taken there by the drug cartel that kidnapped them.

Ms McCollum’s lawyer, Peter Madden, denied media reports that the young woman had previously been involved in drugs. 

“Michaella McCollum did not owe any money to any drugs dealer. She was not and is not involved in the drugs trade; she has no criminal record. She has never been in trouble with the police in her life,” he said.