Yanira Maldonado: Mexican police say they found marijuana under her bus seat, family speaks out
Rafael Romo. Catherine E. Shoichet and Lateef Mungin, CNN
7:05 AM, May 29, 2013
7:40 AM, May 29, 2013
(CNN) -- An Arizona mother of seven will be back in court on Wednesday as a judge weighs whether she will go free or remain behind bars in Mexico, her family said.
It's a situation Yanira Maldonado's family said she never imagined when she boarded a bus to head back to the United States last week after attending a family funeral.
Now she's facing drug-smuggling charges after Mexican authorities said they found 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat.
Her family vehemently denies the charges and accuses authorities of arresting her to get bribe money.
A Mexican state official also told CNN it appears that Yanira Maldonado was framed.
Anna Soto, Maldonado's daughter, said it was devastating to see her mom in jail over the weekend.
"She's an honest woman. She's innocent. It's not a place for someone of her kind," Soto told CNN's "Piers Morgan Live" on Tuesday night. "It hurts just to know that she's there, to have seen her there. It's not fair."
Soto said she knows her mother has nothing to do with drugs.
"Never. No. She is not that kind of person. I don't think she's ever even tried a cigarette in her life or even drank a beer," Soto said. "You know, she's one of those people that tries to stay away from those kinds of people or those kinds of things."
From a bus seat to a jail cell
Mexican authorities arrested Maldonado last Wednesday as she and her husband, Gary, were on their way back to Arizona.
During a search of their bus at a military checkpoint in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, authorities asked everyone to get off.
At first, authorities told Gary Maldonado that marijuana had been found under his seat and arrested him, his father, Larry Maldonado, told CNN. After the father contacted the U.S. Consulate in Hermosillo, Mexico, authorities said they were mistaken and released Gary.
Then, they charged his wife.
Gary Maldonado said he believes Mexican soldiers at the checkpoint wanted a bribe.
"It's about getting money here," he told CNN's "Starting Point" on Tuesday.
A lengthy court hearing
Maldonado's court hearing had stretched for more than three hours on Tuesday afternoon, said Brandon Klippel, her brother-in-law.
Military officers from the checkpoint were scheduled to testify on Wednesday, Klippel said after speaking with family members and a translator who were inside the Mexican courtroom on Tuesday.
"Although we are disappointed to hear that she will not be released today," he said, "we are very encouraged by the strong evidence and witnesses proving her innocence."
Gary Maldonado told CNN affiliate KTVK that he was feeling optimistic after Tuesday's hearing.
"We're hoping for the best outcome. ... We don't think they have a case," he said.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington said in a statement that a preliminary decision from the judge was expected soon.
Questions about arrest
A Sonora state official with extensive knowledge of the case told CNN there are questions about the arrest.
"Can you imagine?" asked the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and did not want to be named. "A passenger by himself or herself would have been unable to carry almost six kilos of marijuana onto a bus without being noticed. She must've been framed."
A regional office of Mexico's Defense Ministry said troops conducting a routine investigation stopped the bus Maldonado was riding in and and found 12.5 pounds (5.7 kilograms) of a substance that appeared to be marijuana under her seat.
Troops turned the case over to the Mexican attorney general's office, the defense ministry said. Maldonado is being housed in a women's prison in Nogales, Mexico, while authorities decide her fate.
The Sonora state division of the attorney general's office said the investigation is ongoing and declined to provide additional information about the case against Maldonado.
Her husband was told by authorities that regardless of his wife's guilt or innocence, he would have to pay $5,000 to secure her freedom, the family said.
He was able to cobble together the money but then was told it was too late. His wife had been transferred to another jail.
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is monitoring the case, his office said.
"Senator Flake is personally monitoring the situation, and he has had multiple conversations with the deputy Mexican ambassador this weekend," Flake's office said Monday.
Fear grips family
But growing political and media attention toward the case has not lessened the fears of Yanira Maldonado's family.
Family members visiting her over the weekend were told they would have hours to talk, but when they arrived they were given only 10 minutes, Klippel said.
"She was at a wire window with her fingertips up through the holes, touching her son's hand with one hand and touching her husband's hand with the other," Klippel said. "She was just saying, 'I don't know how this happened to me. I've never done anything illegal in my life. Why has this happened?'"
After Tuesday's hearing, sister-in-law Veronica Anaya said the family remained very scared and upset.
"The family is very sad," Anaya told Canal 7, a local TV station in Nogales. "They know she's innocent. She's the mother of seven children and a decent person. She's a Christian. This is an injustice."
Mormons reach out
While they anxiously await word from Mexico, family members say they've been turning to their church for strength.
The Maldonados are members of a local Mormon ward in Goodyear, Arizona, Klippel said, adding that church leaders at the state and local level have offered spiritual and material support to the family.
"I feel very blessed, and I feel how powerful this network is," Klippel said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is officially known, has long been active in Mexico and other parts of the world, and is famous for its tight and socially active circles.
A Facebook page Klippel and his wife founded to support Yanira Maldonado had garnered more than 12,500 members as of Tuesday afternoon, many of whom are fellow Mormons. A number have offered to connect the Maldonados with Mormon leaders in Mexico or media in the United States.
Some in the Facebook group said that they are refraining from eating and drinking for a day on the family's behalf.
"To find out that hundreds if not thousands of people are fasting on behalf of my sister and praying to God that this is over soon is very humbling," Klippel said.
CNN's Daniel Burke, Stephanie Kotuby, Devna Shukla and Rene Hernandez contributed to this report.