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'Nightmare' for American woman held in Mexico, accused of smuggling drugs

Courtesy of Maldonado family

Gary (left) and Yanira Maldonado were stopped for alleged drug smuggling on their bus ride home to Phoenix from Mexico after they went to Mexico for Yanira's relative's funeral.

An American woman who went to Mexico for a family funeral has been stuck there for nearly a week, accused of smuggling drugs and facing a potential 10-year prison sentence.

But Yanira Maldonado's family says she is a victim of Mexican corruption, and is hopeful a judge may free her in the coming days. A hearing in her case that started on Tuesday concluded for the day without a decision on her freedom.

Six days earlier, Maldonado and her husband, Gary, were on a bus home to Goodyear, Ariz., after going to her aunt's funeral in Mexico. The bus was stopped at a military checkpoint outside Hermosillo, about 170 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, their relatives said.

Yanira Maldonado, a married mother of seven, has been in custody for a week in Mexico after being accused of trying to smuggle marijunana on a bus, allegations she and her family deny. Her daughter and brother-in-law speak out and NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

Soldiers ordered everyone off the bus and interrogated all the passengers, but didn't question the Maldonados — Mormon parents of seven children, according to Gary's brother-in-law, Brandon Klippel, who also lives in the Phoenix area. 

"They're very staunch Mormons. They're extremely active in their church, to the most far side that you could possibly be in the faith," Klippel said, adding that Maldonado's detainment has been "devastating."

Yanira Maldonado is accused of drug trafficking and possessing 5.7 kilos of marijuana "that were bungee-corded to the metal post beneath her seat. The minimum sentence is 10 years in federal prison," according to Klippel. 

At first, soldiers targeted Gary, and police arrested him first. Hours later, authorities allegedly switched their story, and claimed the drugs were underneath Maldonado's seat.

As Maldonado was taken to jail, a local attorney arrived and allegedly told Gary, "You know how it works in Mexico, right?" and explained money would secure his wife's release.

"The attorney that Gary called was from a list of attorneys who were ranked on a list of how well they spoke English. He talked to the prosecuting attorney before he talked to Gary, and then he came to Gary and said, 'If we give them money, they'll release your wife.'" 

Gary offered $3,500. The prosecuting attorney allegedly bargained for $5,000, which Gary frantically got wired to him from family members back home. After he managed to scrounge up the money — at this point a day later — he found out Maldonado had been transferred from Hermosillo to a women's correctional facility in Nogales, on the border.

"His attorney's assistant said in broken English, 'It's not about money anymore, and they want you to leave,'" Klippel said.

The U.S. Consulate in Hermosillo said it could not comment on the matter and referred all questions to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico City, which did not return a phone call seeking comment. The Mexican Consulate in Washington, D.C., said federal officials are in “close communication” with Mexico’s government to “guarantee Mrs. Maldonado’s right to Consular assistance.”

“Mrs. Maldonado’s rights to a defense counsel and due process are being observed. As the process is ongoing and a preliminary decision by the judge is due soon, no other comments will be made at this time,” Consulate spokeswoman Lydia Antonio said.

'Nightmare that felt surreal'
At 10 a.m. local time Tuesday, Maldonado went before a judge with her Mexican attorney. By late afternoon, Klippel got word that "there will not be any verdict issued today."

The past week has felt like a "nightmare," he said.

"At first, it just seemed surreal. You didn't believe it. You said, 'This is just going to blow over, it's a mistake,'" Klippel said. "The reality is sinking in now that in this country, this thing happens and we don't have a protocol to follow when this happens. What went from being a nightmare that felt surreal is turning into a reality that is overwhelming emotionally." 

Maldonado’s family has visited her in jail.

"She's not doing well," Klippel said. "Just to get in, you have multiple guards with machine guns with their fingers on the trigger staring you down as you get in there. It smells awful. There's this big mesh window that she sits at, and she just cries, saying, 'I've never done anything illegal in my life.'" 

Maldonado is wearing clothes lent to her by another inmate because there are no uniforms, Klippel said, and she's buying food from other inmates because the jail expects family members to provide meals for their relatives behind bars.

"This is the most horrible circumstance," Klippel said. "We want her home soon."

He's hopeful that will happen. 

"They have witnesses who saw that they were the last ones to get on the bus," Klippel said. "They saw them put their luggage underneath and get on the bus without anything with them. How they managed to hide big blocks of marijuana and bungee-cord them underneath is overwhelmingly ridiculous."

Four of those witnesses testified on Tuesday, he said. 

"It's a challenge though. Some people won't come unless they're financially compensated, and some won't come because it's a Mexican court," he said.

A judge had six days to make a decision concerning Maldonado, another brother-in-law, Brian Neerings, said via a Facebook page he has been updating for the family.

"If she is not released within that 6 day window, they are transporting her to a facility in southern Mexico and she will be there for 3-4 months before an official case can be made from the attorney they retained this evening. We are hoping and praying that something happens before that 6 day window expires," he wrote.

It's unclear if the verdict delay will affect the six-day window. Klippel said military officers from the security checkpoint are expected to testify on Wednesday.


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