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

"Here, we are guilty until you are proven innocent," he said after the court hearing.

Maldonado's lawyer said there is no bail in serious criminal cases in Mexico, and that included the drug smuggling charge she faced. Instead, he had to gather evidence that could clear her before a judge, and he praised the bus company for gathering the video evidence and providing a list of fellow passengers who could back up her claims.

"I as a defense attorney have to prove her innocence," her lawyer said Friday. "After I got the evidence I knew I would win."

The Maldonados were traveling home to the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear after attending her aunt's funeral in the city of Los Mochis when they were arrested.

The bus passed through at least two checkpoints on the way to the border without incident. In the town of Querobabi in the border state of Sonora, all the passengers were ordered off the bus and a soldier searched the interior as they waited. The soldier exited and told his superiors that packets of drugs had been found under seat 39, Yanira Maldonado's, and another seat, number 42. Her husband was in seat 40.

Gary Maldonado said a man sitting behind them on the bus fled during the inspection. He said the man might have been the true owner of the drugs.

About 40 people were on the bus before the inspection, but Gary Maldonado said he was the only passenger who appeared American.

Mexican officials provided local media with photos that they said were of the packages Maldonado was 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.

The couple had previously traveled on commercial buses through Mexico because they felt it was safer than driving a personal vehicle.

Yanira Maldonado is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico, her family said. She and her husband have seven children from previous marriages. The couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary while she was jailed.

Drug traffickers have increasingly been using passenger buses to move U.S.-bound drugs through Mexico. Federal agents and soldiers have set up checkpoints along Mexico's main highways and have routinely seized cocaine, marijuana, heroin and more from buses.

Mexico's justice system is carried out largely in secret, with proceedings done almost entirely in writing.

Four years ago, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, but it still has stiff penalties for drug trafficking.

Mexican law doesn't specify a minimum or maximum sentence in drug crimes and leaves it up to the judge to decide how long the sentence should be, said Jose Luis Manjarrez, a spokesman for federal prosecutors in Mexico.

On Wednesday, an army lieutenant, a private and another sergeant were supposed to appear in court but they did not show up. The army did not explain why, the couple's lawyer said.

A search of court records in Arizona turned up no drug-related charges against Yanira or Gary Maldonado.

Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City, Luis Castillo in Nogales and Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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