U.S. woman charged with drug smuggling released in Mexico

Yanira Maldonado was arrested after police found 12 pounds of pot under her seat on a commercial bus

Published May 31, 2013 11:39AM (EDT)

NOGALES, Mexico (AP) — An Arizona woman facing drug smuggling charges in Mexico was freed late Thursday night, after court officials reviewed her case.

Yanira Maldonado was greeted by well-wishers as she left the lockup on the outskirts of Nogales and hugged her husband, Gary, as officials closed the jail doors behind her.

"She lived through a nightmare," said her attorney, Jose Francisco Benitez Paz.

Maldonado was arrested by the Mexican military last week after they found nearly 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) of pot under her seat on the commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Arizona.

The case created a nightmare scenario that has prompted outrage in the U.S. among politicians and pitted the conservative Mormon family against a judicial system that has long struggled with corruption.

Her release came hours after court officials reviewed security footage that showed her and her husband boarding a bus in Mexico with only blankets, bottles of water and her purse in hand.

The judge determined that she was no longer a suspect and all allegations against her were dropped, according to Benitez Paz.

She spoke briefly to reporters clustered outside the jail, saying she thanks God, her husband and her lawyer.

With that she and her husband walked hand in hand to a waiting car, departing for the U.S. border several miles away.

A judge had until late Friday to decide whether to free her or send her to another prison in Mexico while state officials continued to build their case.

Gary Maldonado said earlier Thursday that he was confident that the video should exonerate his wife. He said he was originally arrested after the pot was found under his wife's bus seat on a commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Phoenix. After Yanira Maldonado begged the soldiers to allow her to come along to serve as translator, the military officials decided to release him and arrest her instead, he said.

Benitez Paz, who had also predicted to reporters that the video would lead to her freedom, noted that it was a fairly sophisticated smuggling effort that included packets of drugs attached to the seat bottoms with metal hooks — a task that would have been impossible for a passenger like Maldonado.

"All the evidence they have is the drug under the seat," he said.

The Maldonados were traveling home to the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear after attending her aunt's funeral in the city of Los Mochis when they were arrested.

Gary Maldonado said authorities originally demanded $5,000 for her release, but the bribe fell through. When the couple tried to defend themselves, military officials told them the court would sort it out, Gary Maldonado said.

The couple took the bus because they thought it would be safer than driving. They had taken a similar bus during a separate trip in Mexico.

"We never thought this would ever happen," said Gary Maldonado, who doesn't speak Spanish and couldn't understand the court proceedings involving his wife.

Drug traffickers have increasingly been using passenger buses to move U.S.-bound drugs through Mexico.

In a notorious case, federal police in 2011 found half a ton of marijuana hidden under the seats of a bus headed to Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. They arrested the driver and two other people.

Federal agents and soldiers have set up checkpoints throughout Mexico's main highways and have routinely seized cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other illegal drugs from buses.

When drug suspects are arrested in Mexico, they face a murky situation. Mexico's justice system is carried out largely in secret, with proceedings done almost entirely in writing.

Four years ago, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, but it still has stiff penalties for drug trafficking.

Mexican law doesn't specify a minimum or maximum sentence in drug crimes and leaves it up to the judge to decide how long the sentence should be, said Jose Luis Manjarrez, a spokesman for federal prosecutors in Mexico.

The bus passed through at least two checkpoints on the way to the border without incident. In the town of Querobabi in the border state of Sonora, all the passengers were ordered off the bus and a soldier searched the interior as they waited. The soldier exited and told his superiors that packets of drugs had been found under seat 39, Yanira Maldonado's, and another seat, number 42. Her husband was in seat 40.

Gary Maldonado said a man sitting behind them on the bus fled during the inspection. He believes the man might have been the true owner of the drugs.

Mexican officials provided local media with photos that they said were of the packages Maldonado is accused of smuggling. Each was about 5 inches high and 20 inches wide, roughly the width of a bus seat. The marijuana was packed into plastic bags and wrapped in tan packing tape.

Earlier this week, Benitez presented testimony from Yanira Maldonado and from two relatives who accompanied the couple to the Los Mochis bus station, and two fellow passengers on the bus. All four testified that she had not been carrying any drugs.

He described her as depressed while in jail, but she had not been abused or mistreated.

"She doesn't accept any of the accusations that are being made," he said earlier. "She is sad because of the situation, in which she's being accused of a crime she didn't commit."

On Wednesday, an army lieutenant, a private and another sergeant were supposed to appear in court but they did not show up. The army did not explain why, Benitez said.

The lawyer said he had requested a list of the bus passengers and video of the passengers boarding in Los Mochis, and presented letters from people he described as prominent American officials vouching for Maldonado's character. He said he was awaiting financial information proving she would have no need to earn cash smuggling drugs.

A search of court records in Arizona didn't turn up any drug-related charges against Yanira or Gary Maldonado.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington said in a statement Tuesday that Yanira Maldonado's "rights to a defense counsel and due process are being observed." The embassy didn't respond to allegations she was framed.

Yanira Maldonado is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico, her family said. She and Gary Maldonado were married one year ago, and they celebrated their anniversary while she was jailed.

Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said U.S. consulate officials in Mexico were closely monitoring the case. State Department officials visited her Friday.

"Private citizens who travel abroad are expected to, of course, abide by the law in the country where they are visiting, and the consular office is in touch when cases like this arise to be helpful in advising," Psaki said in a press briefing in Washington on Wednesday.

Family Claims Mom's Pot Bust Was A Setup

By Michael Weissenstein

By Cristina Silva

Cristina Silva is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the Associated Press, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, Women's eNews and the Tampa Bay Times.

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Aol_on Arizona Associated Press Marijuana Mexico Video Yanira Maldonado