Sharon Armstrong thought it was all a big misunderstanding.
That was right up until the point that Argentinian airport officials opened the lining in the suitcase she‘d been carrying to reveal three packages containing 5kg of cocaine.
“There‘s no colder slap in the face than having handcuffs put on you and being locked in a cell.”
The case made the Christchurch woman, who has always maintained her innocence, one of New Zealand‘s best-known “drug mules”.
Back in April 2011, she was on her way to London to see “Frank”, a man she‘d met on a dating site that her cousin had signed her up to, and who she‘d exchanged thousands of emails with.
In hindsight, the warning signs she‘d been lured into a sophisticated internet honeytrap were all there.
In Buenos Aires, the former Maori Language Commission deputy chief executive was to pick up a suitcase full of documents for a multi-million dollar contract that she‘d agreed to work with Frank on.
“I kept thinking, they are just going to realise it‘s just his contracts in there, that there‘s nothing suspicious, that they‘re going to apologise and put me on the next plane to London,” she recalled.
“When I saw the drugs, I just remember losing the plot. I can remember screaming, no, no, no.”
To emphasise that sense of shock, Armstrong chose her distraught arrest photograph to grace the cover for her new book, Organised Deception, being launched at this weekend‘s Womad festival in New Plymouth.
But the two and a half years she spent in Ezeiza 31 women‘s jail gave her time to reflect on what had happened to her – and what she says can easily happen to others.
Armstrong‘s case received much media attention back home. Photo / File facebook twitter email linkedin google-plus whatsapp pinterest reddit
“I spent a lot of time looking at my situation, what had happened to me, and where I wanted to go from there – and I believed that I could work through any issues that I had in terms of having fallen in love with this man,” she said.
“Even when your back is up against the wall, you can still dig deep, there are still choices and you can still have an element of control over yourself.”
Soon after word of her arrest got back to New Zealand, newspaper articles began appearing, along with that horrified, confused mugshot.
“The story had already been told, to a degree, but it had been told by somebody else,” she said.
“I wanted an opportunity to really tell it from my perspective – so this book is very much about my story and how I coped in prison.”
It was also a warning to others.
After returning home, she launched a social media campaign called standup2scams, which shares warnings, tips and information about scams.
Elsewhere, she‘s part of global advocacy organisation MULE, along with lawyers Craig Tuck and Thomas Harre, and clinical forensic psychologist Peter Schaapveld.
“I‘d love to see a working party come together to really scope this issue out: it‘s huge, and it‘s not going away.”
For victims, the cost of being scammed couldn‘t only be measured in dollars.
“I could talk ad infinitum about the monetary losses – but sometimes, you‘ll find a person who lost $2000 was hit a lot harder, emotionally, than a person who lost $200,000.
“For victims I work with now, often, the hardest thing is to shatter those rose-tinted glasses and realise they‘ve been set up, so they can pick up the pieces and move on.
“What many of them struggle with is the separation from the scammer: even though they know they are scamming, they are still drawn back in, because of the good feelings they get with the love emails, and all of that stuff.”
She hoped one of her book‘s biggest take-aways would be vulnerability didn‘t equal stupidity.
“This could happen to anybody: as bad as that sounds, there are people I know who have been scammed and who I think, in my head, it would never happen to them – yet it does.
“I want people to stop and think before they judge… if this was their grandmother, mother, sister, father or uncle, how would they feel?
“I worked hard not to come out of all of this bitter twisted, but I was lucky I had such a supportive whanau – without that it could have possibly all been very different.”