Arizona Woman’s Drug Arrest in Mexico: Six Questions About Her Case

The suburban Mom was coming home from a family funeral in Mexico when authorities say they found 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat.

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Maldonado Family / AP

Gary and Yanira Maldonado

A U.S. citizen has been detained for more than a week by Mexican authorities in the border city of Nogales who claim that she tried to smuggle a large amount of marijuana into the United States from Mexico. Although she has not yet been formally charged with a crime, the Arizona woman’s case has raised questions about the Mexican justice system and whether Maldonado may have been falsely implicated.

As reported by the Associated Press, Yanira Maldonado, 42, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico, says that she has no idea how more than 12 pounds of weed found its way under her seat on a bus headed into the U.S. from Los Mochis, Mexico, where she and her husband Gary had attended a funeral. The mother of seven, who lives in the Phoenix suburb Goodyear, had crossed the border into Mexico on May 19 to bury her aunt. Returning home to the U.S. on May 22, the couple’s bus was stopped at a checkpoint in Sonora, Mexico where soldiers said they found the stash.

If convicted of drug charges, Maldonado could face up to 10 years in a Mexican prison. Her daughter Anna Soto told CNN, “she’s never even tried a cigarette in her life or even drank a beer.” She adds that her mom, who has no arrest record and works with troubled children in Arizona, has never been involved with illicit activities.

Here are six key questions in the case:

1. Why are Mexican authorities taking so long to charge her with a crime?

The Mexican Consulate said in a statement released Tuesday that Maldonado’s rights to a lawyer and due process are being upheld, but by U.S. standards that process is taking a long time. There is no such thing as “innocent until proven guilty” in Mexico, and judges can be involved in building cases against suspects.

2. Are the soldiers who said they found the drugs lying?

The Maldonados’ bus traveled through two checkpoints between Los Mochis and Hermosillo without incident. But when the couple reached Querobabi, Sonora, all of the passengers were removed. A soldier conducted a search and said he found marijuana under Maldonado’s seat. Maldonado’s lawyer Jose Francisco Benitez Paz told the Associated Press that the soldiers’ statements at the arrest were inconsistent. One of them said the drugs were found under Maldonado’s seat,  while another said the contraband was under both hers and a separate seat.

3. Did someone else bring the stash onto the bus?

Each of the packages that allegedly belonged to Maldonado was about the size of a seat cushion and fastened under the bus seats with metal hooks. Her lawyer insists that it would have been impossible for her to bring them aboard without someone noticing. He has asked for surveillance video of passengers boarding the bus, which he believes will exonerate his client.

4. Was Maldonado set up?

Maldonado insists that the marijuana was left under her seat by someone else and that she is being framed. U.S.-bound passenger buses are being increasingly sought to move drugs across the border by way of complicit — or even unsuspecting — couriers. The Justice Department has already observed that buses are used to move large quantities through corridors into Texas, so the same could be true for Arizona.  If Maldonado is suspected as a drug mule, officials could be trying to link her to one of the cartels that is responsible for as much as $39 billion in drug sales each year, according to Justice Department statistics.

5. Why did Maldonado’s husband agree to pay a bribe to Mexican officials?

Desperate to free his wife, Gary Maldonado reportedly managed to raise $5,000 in bribe funds, according to ABC News, but by the time he got the cash together, she had been moved to a different jail. He says he was told by an attorney in Mexico that he could bribe the case judge. In a jailhouse interview with ABC News, Yanira Maldonado said that an unidentified Mexican official actually told her to plead guilty to the crime. “She’s like, ‘I’m here to help, I’m here to put criminals behind bars,'” Maldonado said. “I thought that she was going to help me and she didn’t.”

6. Can the U.S. State Department help Maldonado?

Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokesperson briefed reporters on the situation on Wednesday. She said U.S. Embassy officials planned to attend the Friday hearing and that they are in contact with Maldonado’s family, but it’s unclear what advice or assistance they can give. “We are in close contact,” Psaki said, “with not only the family, but the legal counsel and all parties involved. But in terms of the specific role in the room, I’m not sure.”