The Daily Mirror journalist who scooped the world’s media by getting a police cell interview with the two young British women accused of smuggling drugs out of Peru has told how he blagged his way past officers by posing as their friend.
Chris Bucktin, the paper’s US editor, also said his inability to speak Spanish helped him bag an exclusive interview with the pair, unbeknownst to their Peruvian guards.
Melissa Reid and Michaella Connolly were arrested in Lima last month when they were caught with £1.5m worth of cocaine hidden in their luggage.
Bucktin rushed from his New York base to Lima on the Saturday night after the story broke last month. He said he thought he “had a window”” until Monday before other UK reporters arrived
Having initially been directed to Santa Monica prison, Bucktin later learned that the two women were in fact being held at the “maximum security” Dirandro police station.
“We went inside and spoke to about four or five guards behind the counter,” he explained to Press Gazette. “We ascertained we could visit the girls the next day.
“I wasn’t going to say I was a journalist; I said I was a friend of theirs.”
While the exchange was going on, another reporter – a well-known stringer who has worked for The Sun and Daily Mail – was also at the station but, having told officials that he was a journalist, he had been refused access to the women.
According to Bucktin, his lack of Spanish became an advantage when he was pitched up against a rival from another paper.
“It actually worked in my favour that I didn’t speak the language,” he said. “I purposely didn’t bring any ID other than my driving licence. They asked me who I was and I couldn’t understand the question. They said ‘amigo’ and I said ‘yes, amigo’.
“I don’t think I was being deceitful but I just thought if I said I was a journalist I could jeopardise what I could get.”
Before returning to the station on Monday, Bucktin raided Lima’s supermarket.
“I spent the afternoon buying as much British food as I could to give them a bit of comfort. The guards said they were refusing to eat but it was because they didn’t like the food being served to them.”
He went back armed with rich tea biscuits, Jacobs crackers, cheese, M&Ms and lemonade.
“In the back of my mind I kept thinking why would they speak to a journalist,” he said, explaining the thinking behind the shopping spree. “But I thought they’d been locked up since Tuesday and thought how I’d be if someone came to me with a bag of British food.”
The ploy worked and Bucktin found himself talking to the pair in a chaotic interrogation room upstairs at the police station. Although they were watched by guards, the absence of a common tongue again worked to his advantage.
Once he had earned the girls’ trust, the biggest problem faced by Bucktin was that he could not take a notebook or any recording devices into his interview. Although his Daily Mirror splash was accompanied by pictures of Reid and Connolly and the online piece carried video footage, these came from local agencies, rather than any British reporters.
“I was with them for about an hour and I had to commit everything to memory,” said Bucktin. “The worry was to prove I was in there.”
To make sure he had evidence of the interview, he got one of the pair to write her name and the prison phone number on a piece of paper given to them by a guard. But further relief came when their official statement was released a few days after Bucktin’s story hit the newsstands on 14 August.
“The pleasing thing was that it was almost word-for-word what they’d told me,” he recalled. “I remember getting out of the station and getting my Dictaphone out and saying everything I could remember: what they were saying, what they were wearing, the timeline of it all.”
With his reporting not being restricted by the UK’s contempt of court laws, the only consideration for Bucktin and his news desk was whether they might be putting the girls and their families in more danger from the criminal gang that they claimed had taken them from Spain to force them to work as drug mules in South America.
But he said the families had been in touch to tell him how much they appreciated Bucktin telling their story.
“I got some nice emails from the families afterwards,” he said. “They appreciated the presents we brought them but they also appreciated the reporting. It’s not often you get praised for telling a story.”
He described his experience of getting the story as “good old-fashioned, get on the ground journalism”.
“I wish it was more Joe 90 and I’d climbed over all these buildings but it wasn’t like that. It’s just being in the right place at the right time and getting the rub of the green.
“It just happened to me this time. We’ve all been on the other end of it when you open up another paper and think ‘Jesus Christ, how have they got this?’”
As for the girl’s story, Bucktin hopes he will be allowed to follow it up. He told Press Gazette he could not say whether it was true but he was clearly impressed with how composed Reid and Connolly were in retelling their ordeal.
“Their stories never deviated from each other,” he added. “I’m not saying whether they’re telling the truth or lying but their stories ran parallel. I tried to pull it apart many times and tried to catch them off guard, but it never did.”