When drug mules land in Ireland
As Michaela McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid wait in jail for their trial in Peru, what becomes of foreigners who are caught trying to smuggle narcotics into Ireland?
On guard: customs officer Declan Smyth looks through a one-way mirror in the baggage hall at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
On guard: customs officer Declan Smyth scans luggage at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
On guard: Lottie, a customs dog, finds a suitcase full of cigarettes during a random sniff through luggage at Dublin Airport. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Detained: Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, arrested at Lima airport on suspicion of smuggling cocaine to Spain, enter the Justice Court of Callao in Peru. Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters
It’s a dry, mild evening in the summer of 2006, and five gardaí are up to their necks in paperwork at a Dublin Garda station. The ring of the telephone breaks the tedium. One of the gardaí picks up the phone to a man with a British accent. “I have information,” he says. “There is a 19-year-old male sitting on a bus on board a ferry arriving from London shortly. He has drugs strapped to his legs.”
The voice goes on to describe, in minute detail, the physical features and clothing of the man on the bus, and the gardaí swing into action. When they arrive to meet the ferry they find the teenager easily – with almost two two kilos of cannabis strapped to him.
“The only people who could have known that information in that detail were the people who gave him the drugs in the first place,” says one of the gardaí. He is a former member of the Garda National Drugs Unit, which investigates domestic and international drug trafficking.
“I always got the feeling he was set up,” he says. “He had crossed someone or done something and someone decided to do a job on him. This guy was just an eejit. He was far from a person who would have been capable of importing and exporting drugs.” The teenager ended up in custody here for six to eight months, awaiting trial.
Michaella McCollum Connolly, who is 20 and from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and Melissa Reid, who is also 20 and from Glasgow, were arrested in Peru last month as they waited to board a flight from Lima to Madrid. More than €1.7 million worth of cocaine was found in their luggage.
Their story has attracted huge attention in Ireland as people try to piece together how two young women could have found themselves in such a perilous situation.
But what becomes of the dozens of foreigners who arrive in Ireland every year in similarly desperate conditions, seeking to smuggle large quantities of illegal narcotics into the State, and are caught? Why do they risk it, and what can their circumstances be?
Shay Doyle, customs manager at Dublin Airport, says that although his officers have come across “professional” mules who fly all over the world with drugs concealed within their bodies for profit, a significant number have no choice. Members of various arms of the State’s justice system say they sympathise with some of them.
“There was an engineer from South Africa caught bringing cannabis in,” says Doyle. “He couldn’t get a job because he was on the very lowest rung of people to get a job due to the societal structure out there. He said he did it to buy a birthday present for his child.
“There was also a retired schoolteacher who was caught and put in jail. She was actually then teaching in Mountjoy. She was offered early release but didn’t want to take it because she would have had to give up her teaching.
“A lot of them are actually very relieved when they are caught, particularly the international ones, because it means they are taken out of that whole cycle. If they are going to be in jail here, it is a better alternative. While our officers will sympathise with those people, they still have to apply the law. These are people bringing dangerous narcotics into our country, so the officers have to remain detached.”
There is a minimum 10-year sentence for anyone caught with drugs worth more than €13,000 in the Republic, although this can be lowered in exceptional circumstances. The criminal-law expert Paul Anthony McDermott says the brunt of this heavy sentence is being borne by the mules rather than by the people who control and plan the importation of drugs.