Yanira Maldonado arrested, remains in Mexican prison
PHOENIX (AP) - An Arizona mother locked up in a Mexico prison on a drug-smuggling charge is depressed and upset about the situation, but hopeful a judge will throw out the case after realizing there is no basis to the charges, her lawyer said.
Jose Francisco Benitez Paz spoke to The Associated Press about 42-year-old Yanira Maldonado, who was arrested by the Mexican military after they found nearly 12 pounds of pot under her bus seat last week. Benitez attended a court hearing Wednesday where he told a judge that she should be released from prison.
He 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.
"It was very well prepared," he said. "It wasn't something quick. It was very well done."
Maldonado's arrest has prompted outrage in the U.S. among politicians and her family members. The case has been a fixture on TV networks with its nightmare scenario of a mother being caught up in a drug case and sent to prison in a judicial system that has long struggled with corruption.
Yanira Maldonado and her husband, Gary, said they were returning from her aunt's funeral at the time of the arrest. Gary Maldonado says authorities originally demanded $5,000 for her release, but the bribe fell through. The husband was released after initially being suspected of smuggling.
"You can't imagine traveling to Mexico and the next thing you know they accuse you of having a block of marijuana under your seat, and you're going to jail," said Maldonado's brother-in-law, Brandon Klippel.
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.
Benitez provided details about the timeline of events surrounding the case as Maldonado and her husband traveled home to the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear after attending a funeral in the city of Los Mochis. The lawyer said they took a bus to save the cost of a flight and the fatigue of driving.
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.
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.
Maldonado and her husband were taken to a nearby prosecutor's field office, where he was released. She was sent to a jail in Nogales, where she arrived on Friday. The bus driver was detained and jailed in the state capital, Hermosillo.
Benitez said that he was hired Friday and represented Maldonado in hearings on Monday and Tuesday. He presented testimony from her 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 but said she had not been abused of mistreated.
"She doesn't accept any of the accusations that are being made," he said. "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.
He said the judge would decide by Friday whether to free Maldonado.
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 Klippel said 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 and will likely attend any open proceedings in the case per protocol, Psaki said.
"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.