PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona mother of seven accused of trying to smuggle marijuana into the U.S. had a court hearing Wednesday where her lawyer pushed for her release from a Mexico prison, saying she was set up.
In an interview with The Associated Press after the hearing, lawyer Jose Francisco Benitez Paz expressed optimism that he had proven the charges against Yanira Maldonado were baseless and that the 42-year-old could be released by Friday.
Maldonado's arrest has prompted outrage in the U.S. among politicians and her family members, who say she was framed when her bus was stopped at a military checkpoint last week and authorities found nearly 12 pounds of marijuana under her seat.
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.
"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.
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.
In court Wednesday, Yanira Maldonado's lawyer argued that soldiers had presented inconsistent testimony about two packages of marijuana that they had recovered, with some saying both were found under his client's seat and others saying they were found under two separate seats.
Mexican officials also 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. Officials in Sonora state said they were attached to the underside of one or more seats, but they haven't specified how.
Benitez described the packets of drugs as attached to the seat bottoms with metal hooks, a task that would have been impossible for a passenger boarding normally as Yanira Maldonado did.
Benitez said he had requested a list of the bus passengers and video of the passengers boarding to show she was not in possession of drugs. He presented letters from people he described as prominent American officials vouching for Yanira Maldonado's character and 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 Klippel said they celebrated their anniversary while she was jailed.
Yanira Maldonado was taken to prison in Nogales, in Sonora state, after being turned over to federal prosecutors, said Mexico army spokeswoman Denisse Coronado. A federal judge will decide whether Maldonado should face trial, Coronado said.
Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, confirmed Yanira Maldonado's arrest and 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.
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.
Associated Press Writer Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City, researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York and writer Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.