We Had Loaded Guns Put to Our Heads. We Were Not Smuggling for Money, We Were Smuggling to Save Our Lives; GIRLS IN PERU AR REST NIGHTMARE MELISSA, 19, CLAIMS THEY WERE COERCED

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Byline: EXCLUSIVE by CHRISTOPHER BUCKTIN in Peru

DRUG bust girls Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid told yesterday how they were terrorised into smuggling [euro]1.7million worth of cocaine.

They claimed they had loaded guns put to their heads after being handed over to a ruthless South American cartel and warned: "Do it - or die."

Irish girl Michaella, 20, and 19-year-old Brit Melissa were caught with 11kg of coke in their holiday suitcases as they tried to board a flight from the capital Lima to Madrid last week.

They said they were coerced into trafficking and put in the clutches of Peruvian gang bosses after being snared by a shady Cockney character on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where they had both been working in clubs and bars.

The girls also told how, chillingly, the gang had a dossier on their families in Belfast and Glasgow - and threatened violent reprisals if they failed to carry out their demands.

Speaking exclusively in a meeting with the Mirror at Lima's maximum security Dirandro Police Station in Lima they gave their version of events for the first time. They fought to keep their composure, knowing that they could soon be transferred to Peru's notorious Santa Monica prison, where drug smugglers and murderers run violent gangs to keep control of rackets behind bars.

Despite their ordeal, both girls appeared incredibly resilient as they confessed to their involvement, describing how the "summer of their lives" quickly turned in to a "living nightmare".

After being targeted by the mysterious Londoner in Ibiza, Melissa and Michaella were robbed of their passports and mobile phones and taken thousands of miles between Spain and Peru, shadowed by violent gangsters along the way.

Once in South America they were ordered to carry the cocaine hidden inside food packets back to Majorca.

"We were given no option," said Melissa.

"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.

"We have no doubt they would have killed us both without hesitation if we didn't do as we were told.

"Ever since I was arrested I have played out what has happened in mind over and over again asking myself how could we have gotten out of it. But each time I think it wasn't even an option.

"We both had loaded guns put to our heads. They were more than prepared to use them. If we didn't do it we were told we would die.

"They took all power away from us and controlled us to the point where we would have done anything to make sure we didn't die.

"They even had information about our families and said if we did anything, anything at all to escape or inform the authorities then our loved ones would be targeted too. All of them, I think, were South American. They spoke hardly any English but they didn't need to.

"They made it perfectly clear to us what was going to happen."

Initial reports suggested the girls had befriended each other in Ibiza. But yesterday they told how the first time they met was after being kidnapped and taken to the cartel's "safe house" in Majorca.

Melissa, from Lenzie, near Glasgow, said she was flown to Madrid before being taken by plane to the capital Palma. Michaella was chaperoned straight from Ibiza to Palma.

Throughout each flight the girls were accompanied by one of the cartel who would sit behind them watching their every move. Melissa and Michaella - born in Co Monaghan - now believe they were targeted by the same man. Within hours their phones were taken along with their passports and any other form of identification.

Days later they were each handed a BlackBerry phone to communicate with the gang and given strict instructions not to contact family or friends.

FAVOURITE Frantically both sets of parents tried to get in touch while a Facebook appeal was set up by Michaella's concerned friends to help track her down. …