Politicians last night warned that convicted Dungannon drug mule Michaella McCollum must not profit from her notoriety after her return from a Peruvian jail sentence.
Former model and nightclub dancer Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid, from Scotland, were imprisoned in 2013 for almost seven years for trying to smuggle £1.5 million of cocaine from Peru to Ibiza.
Tyrone DUP MLA Lord Morrow said last night: “This is the return of a convicted criminal yet a great deal of the publicity which appears to surround her resembles that of a minor celebrity. The harm caused by the drugs she attempted to smuggle affects communities everywhere and that should not be forgotten.
“A question which remains is whether her return will be followed by attempts to remain in the public eye, or even to profit from the notoriety she achieved with her crimes. The focus should be on the victims of drug abuse in our society and not those who contributed to their harm.”
TUV leader Jim Allister added: “It is very important that this convicted criminal is not permitted to play the victim, nor to benefit from any resulting notoriety.
“She was convicted of very serious drugs offences, which must not be glamourised or sanitised.”
McCollum and Reid initially claimed they had been forced to carry the drugs but later admitted they hadn’t.
In 2013 the former model and nightclub dancer’s family were frantic when she went missing, but she emerged soon after in Peru on drugs smuggling charges. Lobbying by lawyers, the Irish government and clergy prompted extended high profile media coverage around the world.
There was no welcome home banner or red carpet yesterday in Dungannon, but it seemed her friends and family were rallying around on her return home.
Pictures emerged yesterday of the 23-year-old leaving Dublin Airport after disembarking a flight from London. But when a Mid-Ulster Mail reporter visited her mother’s home in Dungannon to see how Michaella felt about being home, the journalist was told to leave.
Not much later, cars started to arrive at the property as people made their way inside - it would seem for a welcome home party - after Michaella’s three years in the Peru prison.
The convicted cocaine smuggler has not been back in Dungannon since summer 2013, when she left for Ibiza.
McCollum’s Twitter profile appeared intact last night from 2013, boasting a string of glamour photographs from her previous career as a model and nightclub dancer. Most of the pictures have been endlessly recycled by the media over the past three years to illustrate her ongoing story.
But unionists last night warned that she must not capitalise on her media profile and criminal notoriety.
In October McCollum and her fellow drugs mule Reid were featured on the Channel 4 documentary Brits Behind Bars: Cocaine Smugglers. The show detailed how drug mules are trained.
In April bookmakers Paddy Power started taking bets on McCollum after she was released from jail. The bookmaker gave 7/1 odds for her to take part in a ‘Celebrity Big Brother’, with 10/1 on her appearing on ‘Come Dine With Me’.
It also gave odds on her appearing on ‘I’m a Celeb’ as well as ‘The Jump’ and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ - not to mention who might play her in a mooted film based on her smuggling and time spent in jail.
In April McCollum was interviewed in Peru for an RTE documentary in which she acknowledged the potentially devastating consequences if she had successfully smuggled the drugs back to Europe.
“I probably would have had a lot of blood on my hands,” she said.
“I potentially could have filled Europe full of a lot of drugs. I could have potentially killed a lot of people, not directly but I could have caused a lot of harm to people.”
She added: “I made a decision in a moment of madness. I’m not a bad person. I want to demonstrate that I’m a good person.”
After their arrest in 2013, Catholic cleric Sean Walsh visited the women in a police holding centre in Lima.
“They told me that there were a group of Colombians that actually took them at gunpoint and threatened them,” he said. They claimed to have been targeted by a “mysterious Londoner” in Ibiza.
When arrested in 2013 McCollum and Reid initially claimed they had then been robbed of their passports and phones and taken between Spain and Peru, shadowed by gangsters.
Speaking to the Daily 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, they were “watched” on to an internal flight to the city of Cusco, 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.”
They later retracted the story.