Peru drug arrests: Women 'forced into cocaine trafficking'

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Media caption,

Video footage shows Melissa Reid and Michaella McCollum questioned in Peru on suspicion of drug trafficking

Two women held in Peru over suspected drug trafficking have told a visiting cleric they were forced at gunpoint by Colombian gangsters to carry the drugs.

Melissa Reid, 19, from Lenzie, near Glasgow, and Michaella McCollum, 20, from Dungannon, were stopped trying to board a flight to Madrid last week.

A Catholic cleric, Sean Walsh, visited the women in a police holding centre in Lima.

The women are due in court later where they will be formally charged.

The BBC's Will Grant in Lima said they are expected to enter not guilty pleas.

Video released

Police said they found more than 24lb (11kg) of cocaine, with a street value of £1.5m, in food packaging in the women's luggage at the city's airport.

Mr Walsh is an Irish-American archbishop of the Eastern Catholic Church who has been working with prisoners in Peru for several years. He said he had met with the two women for half an hour at the holding centre.

"They told me that there were a group of Colombians that actually took them at gunpoint and threatened them," he said.

He added that while he had not seen the women's cells, he believed they were being treated well.

Meanwhile in an interview with the Daily Mirror from the holding centre, the women claimed to have been targeted by what the paper described as a "mysterious Londoner" in Ibiza.

They had then been robbed of their passports and mobile phones and taken between Spain and Peru, shadowed by South America gangsters, the paper reported.

Speaking to the Mirror, the women said they had first met each other after being taken to the drug cartel's "safe house" in Majorca.

Once in Peru, the paper said they were "watched" on to an internal flight to the city of Cusco, a World Heritage site close to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, and were given the packages to transport.

Ms Reid told the paper: "They wanted us to act as though we were best friends and say we were students travelling around.

"If we didn't do as we were told we would be dead. We were not smuggling for money, we were smuggling for our lives."

She said the gang had information about their families and had threatened to target them too if the women tried to escape or inform the authorities.

Biggest exporter

The National Police of Peru released a video of the women being questioned just after their arrest.

In it, Ms Reid answers basic questions - such as her name and nationality - then says she did not know what she was carrying.

She told her interviewer: "I was forced to take these bags in my luggage".

The two women flew to Peru from Spain where they had been on a working holiday on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza.

Peru has overtaken Colombia as the world's biggest cocaine exporter, and charity Prisoners Abroad said it had noticed an increase in the number of British people arrested on drugs charges in the country.

South American cartels supply the lucrative European drugs market.

The women's families were unaware they had gone to Peru and it is thought that some family members may now travel to Lima.

Ms Reid's father, William, said there was no way his daughter would have been willingly involved.

Ms McCollum's family issued a statement through their lawyer saying she denied involvement in any criminal offence.

Prison conditions in Peru are notoriously tough, and if convicted the women could face many years behind bars.

Reported missing

East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson said she was "deeply concerned" to hear about Ms Reid's arrest.

Ms Reid had posted hundreds of photographs to her Facebook page over the summer, but it has not been updated since 21 July.

Ms McCollum, who holds an Irish passport, was reported missing last week after her family heard nothing from her for 12 days.

The British and Irish governments confirmed they were providing consular assistance to the women.

A statement on the National Police of Peru's website said the women were alleged to have been acting as "drug mules".

They were detained by drug enforcement officials at Jorge Chavez International Airport after being detected by a sniffer dog.