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Jailed mom in Mexico: Next time, 'I'll drive'

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 10:40 a.m. MDT

FILE - This 2012 file photo provided by the Maldonado family shows Gary and Yanira Maldonado. Yanira Maldonado, jailed in Mexico on a drug-smuggling charge, was released late Thursday night, May 30, 2013, after court officials reviewed her case. Maldonado was arrested by the Mexican military last week after they found nearly 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) of pot under her seat on the commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Arizona. (AP Photo/Maldonado Family, File) (Cristina Silva, Associated Press) FILE - This 2012 file photo provided by the Maldonado family shows Gary and Yanira Maldonado. Yanira Maldonado, jailed in Mexico on a drug-smuggling charge, was released late Thursday night, May 30, 2013, after court officials reviewed her case. Maldonado was arrested by the Mexican military last week after they found nearly 12 pounds (5.4 kilograms) of pot under her seat on the commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Arizona. (AP Photo/Maldonado Family, File) (Cristina Silva, Associated Press)

PHOENIX — The American woman who was jailed for a week after Mexican authorities said they found marijuana under her bus seat says she'll return to Mexico someday, but she'll drive her car.

Yanira Maldonado returned to her suburban Phoenix home Friday, a day after a judge in Nogales, Mexico, dismissed drug smuggling charges.

The judge viewed video that showed the 42-year-old and her husband getting on the bus with just a purse, blankets and bottles of water before it was stopped by Mexican soldiers.

At a news conference near Phoenix Friday evening, Maldonado said she doesn't think she'll end up in jail again when she returns to Mexico.

"I don't think it's going to happen again," she said of her arrest, but "I'll drive my own vehicle."

Yanira Maldonado (Cristina Silva, Associated Press) Yanira Maldonado (Cristina Silva, Associated Press)

After spending the night in a hotel on the U.S. side of the border, the Maldonados arrived home Friday afternoon to be reunited with their seven children, who range in age from 6 to 25.

Yanira Maldonado said she didn't blame her home country but Mexican authorities should do a better job of arresting drug smugglers "and not people who are innocent like me."

"What happened to me can happen to anyone," she said Friday.

Since she still has family in Mexico, she said she'll return, "not right now, maybe in the future."

Maldonado walked out of a prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico, and into her husband's arms late Thursday after a judge dismissed drug-smuggling charges against her.

Yanira Maldonado, accompanied by her husband, Gary, center, speaks to an official  after being released from a prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico, late Thursday. (Associated Press) Yanira Maldonado, accompanied by her husband, Gary, center, speaks to an official after being released from a prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico, late Thursday. (Associated Press)

"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 outside the jail before crossing through the Nogales port of entry into Arizona.

The governor of the Mexican state of Sonora, where Nogales is located, apologized for Maldonado's ordeal during a visit to Phoenix on Friday. He said he made sure she was safe and wasn't transferred to a federal prison and worked to ensure the court proceedings went quickly.

"In a few words I could say we're very sorry that she was in the wrong place in the wrong moment," Gov. Guillermo Padres Elias said. "But we're very glad that she's OK and she still says ... that she will continue visiting our country and she will continue going on tourism trips to Sonora.

"Because Sonora really likes the United States people and Arizonans to go down there. We welcome them with open arms with a big smile and we see you as a family, so we want to continue with that."

With kidnappings, drug cartel shootouts and other violent crime pervasive in parts of Mexico, the tourism industry has taken a hit, although popular destinations like Cancun are so well-protected that problems are rare.

Yanira Maldonado, 42, center, accompanied by her husband, Gary, right, speaks to media after being released from a prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico late Thursday, May 30, 2013. 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 (5.4 kilograms) of pot under her seat on the commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Arizona. (AP Photo/Cristina Silva) (Associated Press) Yanira Maldonado, 42, center, accompanied by her husband, Gary, right, speaks to media after being released from a prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico late Thursday, May 30, 2013. 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 (5.4 kilograms) of pot under her seat on the commercial bus traveling from Mexico to Arizona. (AP Photo/Cristina Silva) (Associated Press)

Kidnappings and cartel violence are prominent among the U.S. State Department's lengthy set of warnings about travel in Mexico. But there are also warnings about getting caught up in drug smuggling, either by being used as a "blind mule" who doesn't know drugs have been put in their car or luggage, or by being strong-armed by smugglers who threaten harm if a person doesn't carry drugs.

Maldonado also may have been caught up in a shakedown by Mexican police who were seeking a bribe. Her husband said police sought $5,000 to let her go.

She may have just been randomly assigned the seat under which the smugglers hid the pot. Or she could have been put there on purpose by smugglers who hoped an American was less likely to be targeted for a search and to provide cover for the real smuggler.

Alonzo Pena, who retired as deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2010 and was once stationed in Mexico, said someone else on the bus probably put the drugs under Maldonado's seat without her knowledge and watched her throughout the trip.

The U.S. State Department also warns that criminals are increasingly affixing drugs to the bottom of parked cars in Mexico, then removing them after the vehicle enters the U.S.

Those cases are rare, Pena said, because smugglers like to closely watch the drugs crossing the border.

An Arizona sheriff who has spent more than 40 years along the Mexican border said Maldonado's case probably was a shakedown.

"They've got some good, courageous law enforcement officers in Mexico," said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. "Coupled with that, you've got really corrupt ones, too. And that goes at all levels."

Estrada, whose territory includes Nogales, said finding drugs under the seat of a public bus should not have necessarily implicated Maldonado and wouldn't have been enough to arrest her in the U.S.

"Something underneath somebody's seat, anybody could have put it there," he said.

But having Americans on board the bus made it easy for police to either assume the Maldonados were the smugglers, or to target them for a bribe.

"It just looks funny. In my opinion, it was unreasonable based on what little that they had," Estrada said. "If you're an outsider, if you're an American, even a Mexican-American, you're a target. You stand out like a sore thumb."

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.

All the passengers were ordered off the bus in the town of Querobabi and a soldier searched the interior.

The soldier told his superiors that packets of drugs had been found under two seats, including Yanira Maldonado's.

Her husband, Gary Maldonado, said a man sitting behind them on the bus fled during the inspection and might have been the real smuggler.

Maldonado was held without bail for a week because under the Mexican judicial system, she had to prove she was innocent. The family's lawyer in Nogales, Mexico, Jose Francisco Benitez Paz, said the video of the couple boarding the bus did just that, although prosecutors are pursuing a routine appeal.

After spending the night in a hotel on the U.S. side of the border, the Maldonados were expected to arrive in Phoenix on Friday evening to be reunited with their seven children.

But after her release, Yanira Maldonado said she didn't blame her home country.

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

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