A distraught Sharon Armstrong says she was duped into smuggling five kilograms of cocaine by an online lover.
"Oh God, I feel so foolish," she told The Dominion Post from her Argentinian cell yesterday. "You know I've worked for the government for 20 years. I've just been a silly old lady. Silly, silly, silly and too trusting. I've been scammed. This is just so shameful."
Friends and family say her arrest is out of character and believe Ms Armstrong, 54, is the victim of an online dating scam.
The former deputy chief executive of the Maori Language Commission had been a contractor at Wellington Maori education and language company Haemata since February.
An Argentinian official said she was arrested on April 13 as she was waiting to board British Airways flight BA2444 to London.
The cocaine was found after she had checked in her baggage, the official said. A security scan revealed the cocaine concealed by a false bottom in her suitcase.
For several months, Ms Armstrong had been exchanging emails and chatting on Skype with a man she had met online.
She was due to travel to London to meet him but, at the last minute, her flights were changed to go via Argentina, where the man reportedly asked her to pick up some documents relating to a new job.
Friends and family repeatedly warned Ms Armstrong it could be a scam. But the man had put about $1000 toward the cost of the altered tickets, and she thought he was legitimate. She has not heard from him since her arrest.
She is being held at the medium-security Federal Centre of Detention for Women in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires. Conditions in the prison, which houses about 230 inmates, were "just passable", she said.
The screams and yells of other prisoners could be heard as she spoke tearfully of her arrest: "Oh God, this is my worst nightmare."
She broke down several times.
Ms Armstrong said she had spoken to her family from prison and been allocated a lawyer from the public defenders' office, but the woman did not speak English.
"I've only seen her once. I met the lawyer and a person who could speak a bit of English last Thursday and, oh God ... they had a translator and I gave a statement and told them everything I could tell them."
She was yet to appear in court. "It's hard to really know exactly what's happening. I'm supposed to go back and see them within 10 days and the judge will give his first judgment."
Only one other woman in her unit spoke English. "It's hard ... I don't know if I will still be here tomorrow. I am supposed to be moved to the English-speaking area of the prison."
She had been told the justice system in Buenos Aires was rife with bribery. "I'm hearing all sorts of horror stories about how corrupt things are here. You know, if you've got money, you can buy your way out. But I would never put my family through that."
She had one message for her family: "I'm so sorry for what has happened."
Ms Armstrong's cousin, Kapoi Mathieson, said: "There is no way on earth she would do this.
"Her whole family are all so very supportive of her and will continue to be, because we know this is [a] tragedy. She has been taken in by a guy who is a cad, a total cad."
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry said the embassy in Buenos Aires was told of the arrest on April 14.
Embassy staff were in contact with Ms Armstrong and would visit her on Wednesday, local time. "This is the earliest embassy staff were permitted to visit."
Staff would provide a list of English-speaking lawyers and essential items bought for or donated to Ms Armstrong.
"The embassy is liaising with the Argentine authorities and the ministry is in touch with the family."
Maria Paula La Monica, from the Argentinian embassy in Wellington, said Argentina was a democracy and anyone arrested there was entitled to be represented by a lawyer.
"Moreover, if the arrested person does not speak our official language, an interpreter will be provided."
Ms Armstrong, 54, was a probation officer in New Plymouth from 1990 to 1998. A former colleague said yesterday: "You don't work with criminals and be gullible after all those years.
"I just can't imagine her being conned."
PRISON CONDITIONS IN BUENOS AIRES
Prison conditions are generally poor, with extreme overcrowding, poor nutrition and sanitation, inadequate medical treatment, limited family visits and frequent degrading behaviour, according to various human rights groups.
Beatings, the use of a cattle prod, cold showers and forced isolation are common, says one report.
The law allows for "investigative detention" of up to two years for people awaiting or undergoing trial. Prisoners wait an average of three years to be tried.
Anyone who transports narcotics can receive a four to 15-year term of "rigorous imprisonment".
Ugh - this is an absolutely horrible story. If any of us are feeling down, lonely, sad, or hopeless, all we really need to do is just imagine for a second, how terrible the situation that Sharon is in right now...is. If that doesn't make you feel grateful about your lot in life - nothing will.
I can't help though, but wonder what on Earth she was thinking??? Who needs to pay a grand to have someone go and collect papers for a new job? Has she never heard of posting something in the mail? Courier? Email? No one PAYS to go and collect papers from anywhere. How could a seemingly intelligent woman think that was a normal request?
I have a very good friend, who has been chatting to, and doing the whole online romance thing for about a year now, with a guy that lives in London. They met on Facebook. I keep telling her over and over, how we never really know anyone that we have met online, and never met in person. Heck, we don't REALLY know some of the people that we have met in person...heck i didn't even REALLY know someone that i was married to.
People have to be so careful these days. People can be whoever they want to be on internet dating sites, and social networking sites. I keep telling my friend that for all she knows this guy that she has been emailing and chatting to, is an old fat woman - or a bored 12 year old.
We just never know. It is just crazy. We only have ourselves to blame though - if we don't listen to our gut, or our intuition, or we just ignore common sense, in our pursuits of love. Being single can be lonely at times, but i think i would take lonely, over deceived - Any. Day.