NOGALES, MEXICO - A mother from Arizona 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 on the grounds that she was set up.
The arrest of Yanira Maldonado, 42, 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.
Maldonado sat down with ABC15, speaking out about her arrest and the conditions in jail as she awaits a decision from the judge. Watch the interview in the player above.
Maldonado and her husband, Gary, said they were returning from the funeral of her aunt 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 initially suspected of smuggling, but later released.
In court Wednesday, Maldonado's lawyer argued before the judge that soldiers had presented inconsistent testimony about the two packages of marijuana that they had recovered, with some saying both were found under the woman'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 haven't specified how.
Maldonado's attorney, Jose Francisco Benitez Paz, asked prosecutors at the hearing to provide security-camera video footage of passengers boarding in Los Mochis to show the woman did not sneak drugs onto the bus.
The arrest has received national attention and been a fixture on TV networks with its nightmare scenario of a mother of seven being caught up in a drug case and sent to prison in a judicial system that has long struggled with corruption.
Maldonado's brother-in-law Brandon Klippel said the court hearing Wednesday would consist of testimony from the soldiers at the checkpoint about 90 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This is the crux of the prosecution, so today is key," Klippel said.
He said four witnesses testified Tuesday on behalf of the couple.
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.
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.
"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," Klippel said.
A search of court records in Arizona didn't turn up any drug-related charges against Yanira or Gary Maldonado.
She 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 Maldonado's arrest and said U.S. consulate officials in Mexico were closely monitoring the case. State Department officials visited Maldonado on 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.