Family and friends support drug-accused

New Zealand embassy staff in Argentina have visited a former top public servant being held in a Buenos Aires jail accused of trying to smuggle five kilograms of cocaine in a false-bottomed suitcase.

Speaking to The Dominion Post from the medium-security detention centre where she is being held, Sharon Armstrong said the support of her family was helping her survive.

"I'd really like to thank everybody for their support of me and my whanau."

The stress of prison life was taking its toll but regular contact with her family was helping.

"I don't have any choices. I just have to do what I have to do.

"I'm taking it day by day, some days are better than others. I'm just trying to stay strong for my whanau really.

''Tomorrow may be a different day but today's ok.''

She had been visited by embassy staff on Wednesday local time, and they were also keeping her family informed.

A former colleague, former Maori Language Commission chief executive Haami Piripi, told Radio New Zealand that close family members wanted to go to Argentina to support Armstrong, but that the New Zealand embassy was advising them to wait.

Friends were also pulling together a legal fund to help Armstrong fight the charges.

The 54-year-old was arrested leaving Argentina en route to London to see a man she met online and had been emailing and Skyping over several months.

An Argentinean official said the cocaine was found concealed by a false bottom in her suitcase.

Armstrong is the former deputy chief executive of the Maori Language Commission. She had been a contractor at Wellington Maori education and language company Haemata since February.

Friends and family say her arrest is out of character and she is the victim of an online dating scam.

Armstrong told The Dominion Post: "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."

She was arrested on April 13 as she was waiting to board British Airways flight BA2444 to London. New Zealand's embassy in Buenos Aires was informed the next day.

Friends and family repeatedly warned Armstrong the arrangement with the online lover - who contributed money towards the airfares - could be a scam.

Cocaine has an estimated street value in New Zealand of $250 a gram, making five kilograms worth about $1.25 million.

The Dominion Post