An Arizona mother accused of trying to smuggle 12 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico says she has “nothing to hide” and expects to be released soon.
Yanira Maldonado, 42, of Goodyear, Ariz. was arrested by the Mexican military after they found nearly 12 pounds of pot under her bus seat last week. In an exclusive jailhouse interview, the mother of seven told ABC15.com she had nothing to do with the marijuana packages — packed in plastic bags and wrapped in tan packing tape — found under her seat.
“I’m going to be free; I’m not guilty,” Maldonado said. “I have nothing to hide.”
Maldonado, a devout Mormon, credited her faith as her source of strength while behind bars for nearly a week in a Mexican jail in Nogales.
“I was nervous before, but now I feel a little better,” she told ABC15.com. “This is a trial that I have to go through. It’s going to make us stronger.”
Still, Maldonado said she’s eagerly anticipating her freedom.
“This is a nightmare,” she said. “I need to be out.”
Jose Francisco Benitez Paz, Maldonado’s attorney, told a judge during a court hearing on Wednesday that she should be released from prison, noting 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 someone like Maldonado.
"It was very well prepared," he said. "It wasn't something quick. It was very well done."
Maldonado and her husband, Gary, said they were returning from the funeral of her aunt last Wednesday when the passenger bus they were on was stopped at a Mexican military checkpoint about 90 miles from the U.S. border. Authorities ordered everyone off, searched the bus and then claimed to have found the marijuana under her seat.
“We just had our witnesses testify, I did my declaration,” Gary Maldonado, her husband, told MyFoxPhoenix.com by phone. “Yanira did hers yesterday. It’s looking promising, like our case is solid and theirs looks weak.”
Gary Maldonado said an attorney told them they could pay off the judge, so he had family members wire him $5,000 for the bribe. But he says though the money was offered, it was not accepted. He also said the Mexican legal system is a far cry from the judicial process in the U.S.
“What they do is they gather up all the testimonies and then the judge will have her secretary-lawyer type all the stuff up and then she’ll give a recommendation of what she thinks to the judge,” he said. “The judge will decide the case from reading all the evidence, who weighs more in evidence.”
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."
Brandon Klippel, Yanira Maldonado’s brother-in-law, told MyFoxPhoenix.com that four members of Maldonado’s family testified in court Tuesday, including a relative who dropped them off at the bus station. Klippel said witnesses testified that the Maldonados entered the bus “without anything with them” and that documentation exists confirming that the funeral took place.
“Our greatest fear right now is that our sister will be lost,’’ Klippel told Savannah Guthrie on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday. “One of the things the attorney said to us right in the beginning is that once you’re in the federal prison system (in Mexico), they move you around without keeping good records. In fact, she was lost for the first day in the prison system when this first started. "If she’s moved and transported around, we may never see our sister again, and that’s something that would just be devastating to our family.”
Anna Soto, one of Maldonado's daughters, said she’s innocent and should be allowed to return to Goodyear, a suburb of Phoenix.
“Just let her come home,” Soto said. “Let her come home. She is innocent.”
Soto said she hopes her mother will be home by Friday.
“[I] keep praying, that’s all I can really do,” she told MyFoxPhoenix.com.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., 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.
Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department in Mexico, confirmed Maldonado's arrest but referred all questions to her attorney and Mexican authorities. But on Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson said U.S. diplomats have been in touch with both the Maldonados and Mexican authorities regarding the incident.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., "is personally monitoring the situation and he has had multiple conversations with the deputy Mexican ambassador," his office said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.