Banged Up Abroad: the unwatched Irish edition

Irish eyes have been trained on Peru this week, as Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid were charged with drug trafficking. It’s easy to forget about all the foreigners who are accused of smuggling drugs into Ireland

Handcuffed: Michaella McCollum Connolly with police in Peru on Tuesday. Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters

Handcuffed: Michaella McCollum Connolly with police in Peru on Tuesday. Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters


There have been some curious aspects to the coverage of the story of Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid. The most obvious is how much it was driven by the repeated drip-drip of visuals: CCTV footage at Lima airport, film of them in custody, photographs of the two at a beach.

Each piece fuelled coverage that would otherwise have struggled with blurred Facebook grabs in the interim between arrest and court appearance, while allowing it to be presented as a real-time special of Banged Up Abroad.

Yet, even as the images gave the public a sense of the women’s personalities and an opportunity for empathy, the tone of the reporting shifted over the days. By Wednesday, before the two were formally charged with drug trafficking, at least one newspaper had dropped the quotation marks around “drug mules”.

The bedrock of the coverage, though, has been predictability. In the Irish Mirror McCollum Connolly is Irish. In the Daily Mirror she is British. Either way, they are going to hell, as several papers put it (or, for elegant variation, a hellhole). Their prison is “notorious”. They went to court “shackled”. (They wore handcuffs.)

Which is not to say that anyone would relish a lengthy spell in a Peruvian jail – Amnesty has been on the country’s case for good reason – but the interest in this one story of young Irish and Scottish women ending up in a South American cell comes from a perspective that allows the blanking out of many similar stories.

You’re unlikely to know of Fidel Guiaso. A 35-year-old hairdresser from Colombia who had moved to the Netherlands, he had a boyfriend, an ill father with medical debts and no previous criminal convictions. Then, in 2008, he swallowed 87 pellets of cocaine, smuggled them into Ireland and managed to hand over 81 of them to his contact here before being arrested at a Dublin hotel.

A year later he was sentenced to six years in jail. Newspapers carried a brief report and Guiaso disappeared back into the mass of convicted criminals. He had been caught and jailed in a country he might reasonably have expected never to have stepped foot in otherwise. That was the gamble. He lost. This was the price.

Nor is much attention paid to the steady drip of arrests at Dublin Airport. The Congolese man who, in March, was alleged to have wrapped €5,000 of cannabis in leaves and flown in from Belgium. The Argentine man who, the next day, was arrested in the airport on suspicion of smuggling €35,000 of cannabis in candles. The Hungarian man that same night who Revenue reported had ingested 99 pellets of cocaine.

And on it goes. A 21-year-old Portuguese man is alleged to have stepped off a flight from Buenos Aires in April with liquid cocaine in shampoo bottles and more in three condoms in his stomach, and a 50-year-old woman from Trinidad and Tobago is alleged to have had €225,000 worth of cocaine glued to the lining of her suitcase when she arrived here in February.

In many cases – and others before and since – they’ll have found themselves sitting in Ballymun Garda station on a weekend night, possibly without much English to get by, facing a spell in an overcrowded prison system in a country in which there is (subject to judges’ discretion in certain circumstances) a mandatory 10-year jail term
for trafficking drugs with a street value of more than €3,000.

They face that time in a country with a prison overcrowding problem bad enough for Amnesty International to insist it’s time to bring “conditions and treatment of detainees in Irish prisons into line with international human rights standards”.

What did the report highlight in particular about our jails? “Lack of basic in-cell sanitation . . . inadequate healthcare . . . Many vulnerable prisoners in need of protection are consigned to 23-hour lock-up regimes akin to solitary confinement, and individuals with severe mental health problems are inappropriately kept in prison . . . Mountjoy Prison, in particular, is reported to have high levels of overcrowding and inter-prisoner violence, making it unsafe for both prisoners and prison staff.”

There’s a “banged up abroad hell” you don’t read much about, because all of these people are the bottom of the human-interest story chain, just as they are often at the bottom of the criminal chain.

They are, in media terms, people whose personal stories are of interest to few domestic news consumers and who have nobody here to vouch for them. They are not our sons and daughters. They are foreigners in a western prison, not the other way around.

Our jails are holiday camps, theirs are hellholes, goes the easy, conventional narrative. If they took a risk and got caught, then so be it is, the verdict of the media industry that omits their stories. Some stories sell. Theirs, sadly, are not worth the ink of a headline.

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