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Mexican officials release Mormon mom from Arizona who was facing drug charge (+video)

By Cristina Silva

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 31 2013 1:18 p.m. MDT

Yanira Maldonado, jailed in Mexico on a drug-smuggling charge, was released after court officials reviewed her case. She was arrested by the Mexican military last week after they found nearly 12 pounds of pot under her seat on the commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Arizona.

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NOGALES, Mexico — An Arizona woman held in a Mexico jail for a week after federal police said they found 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat was freed and returned to the U.S. after a court reviewed her case, including key security footage, and dismissed the allegations.

Yanira Maldonado, 42, walked out of the prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico, and into her husband's arms late Thursday and crossed through the Nogales port of entry into Arizona. After spending the night in a hotel, she drove away with a police escort at midmorning Friday and was expected to return to her Phoenix-area home to be reunited with her children.

Maldonado spoke briefly after her release, thanking U.S. State Department officials, her husband, her lawyers and prison workers who made her stay comfortable.

"Many thanks to everyone, especially my God who let me go free, my family, my children, who with their help, I was able to survive this test," she said.

Maldonado also said at a news conference later that she still loves Mexico, and the experience will not stop her from returning in the future to visit family there.

"It's not Mexico's fault. It's a few people who did this to me and probably other people, who knows?" Maldonado said. "I'm still going to go back."

The family's lawyer in Nogales, Jose Francisco Benitez Paz, said a judge determined Thursday that Maldonado was no longer a suspect, and all allegations against her were dropped. Prosecutors are appealing the ruling, but Benitez said that is routine and Maldonado will not have to return to testify.

Maldonado's release came hours after court officials reviewed security footage that showed the couple boarding a commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Phoenix with only blankets, bottles of water and her purse in hand.

U.S. politicians portrayed her as a victim of a corrupt judicial system and demanded her release, with Arizona congressmen saying they were working closely with Mexican authorities.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who previously said he has had "multiple conversations with the deputy Mexican ambassador," on Friday welcomed Maldonado's release.

"Though I'm sure this last week has been a nightmare for her, I'm thankful that Mrs. Maldonado's clear innocence was proved and that she is now home safe with her family," he said in a statement released by his office.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said her administration had been closely monitoring Maldonado's case and been talking with authorities on both sides of the border.

"As Americans, we all know that our precious constitutional rights don't extend beyond our nation's borders," she said. "It is this kind of case that once again illustrates how blessed we are in this country. Most of all, I am so happy for the Maldonado family that they can now put this chapter of their lives behind them."

The judge had until late Friday to decide whether to free Maldonado or send her to another prison in Mexico while state officials built their case.

Maldonado was arrested by the Mexican military last week after they found nearly 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) of pot under her seat during a security checkpoint.

Benitez noted 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. He said witness testimony and the surveillance video showed Maldonado was innocent.

"There is justice in this country," he said.

Maldonado husband, Gary Maldonado, said he originally was arrested after the pot was found under his wife's bus seat. But after Yanira Maldonado begged the soldiers to allow her to come along to serve as a translator, the military officials decided to release him and arrest her instead. Gary Maldonado alleges authorities initially demanded $5,000 for his wife's release, but the bribe fell through.

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