Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ariz. woman released in Mexico back in US

NOGALES, Mexico (AP) — An Arizona woman held in a Mexico jail for a week on a drug-smuggling charge was freed and traveled back 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. She and her family members could be seen crossing through the Nogales port of entry into Arizona in a small sedan shortly after midnight, The Arizona Republic reported.

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 in comments aired on KSAZ-TV. "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.

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.

The judge had until late Friday to decide whether to free Maldonado or send her to another prison in Mexico while state officials continued to build their case. Prosecutors could appeal the ruling.

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.

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

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.

     
 
Comments
Girls basketball: Rebounding edge keeps Clearwater on top

Girls basketball: Rebounding edge keeps Clearwater on top

CLEARWATER — The result was expected but definitely didn't come easily.In Tuesday's Class 7A region semifinal, underdog Northeast threw some strong low-post defense against a lethargic Clearwater squad early, then rode effective offensive energ...
Updated: 6 minutes ago
Nikita Kucherov’s trick shot sends Lightning past Capitals

Nikita Kucherov’s trick shot sends Lightning past Capitals

WASHINGTON — There was some lighthearted debate in the Lightning dressing room Tuesday night about whether the latest dazzling breakaway move by Nikita Kucherov was a deliberate fake or a slip off the stick.Some teammates playfully gave the All...
Updated: 12 minutes ago
Rays trade team MVP Steven Souza Jr. in three-team deal that nets prospects

Rays trade team MVP Steven Souza Jr. in three-team deal that nets prospects

PORT CHARLOTTE — Evan Longoria traded in December. Jake Odorizzi and Corey Dickerson dumped over the weekend. Then, in a stunning move Tuesday night, 2017 team MVP Steven Souza Jr. shipped to Arizona as part of a three-team deal that netted onl...
Updated: 14 minutes ago

FL Lottery

FL Lottery
Updated: 25 minutes ago

High school scoreboard for Feb. 20

Tuesday’s scoreboardSoftballAdmiral Farragut 17, St. Petersburg Cath. 0BaseballGulf Coast HEAT 9, Canterbury 4Calvary Chr. 6, Lakeland Chr. 1
Updated: 1 hour ago

Girls basketball: Tampa Bay Tech pulls away late

TAMPA — When Jalyn Spurlin played for Brandon High her first two seasons, she felt "like I had to be everything; everything was on me."Since transferring to Tampa Bay Tech, a team with seven seniors, including Division I-A-bound Janae...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Wednesday’s sports on TV/radio

TODAYCollege basketballGeorgia at South Carolina6:30 p.m.SECXavier at Georgetown6:30 p.m.FS1North Carolina at Syracuse7 p.m.ESPNGeorgia Tech at Virginia7 p.m.ESPN2Texas Tech at Oklahoma State7 p.m.ESPNUSMU at East Carolina7 p.m.ESPNewsClemson at Virg...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Girls basketball: Kaliah Henderson propels Robinson

TAMPA — As the post-game celebration subsided, Robinson junior Kaliah Henderson found a secluded spot on the emptied stands to relax, and perhaps reflect, after going non-stop for the Knights in Tuesday's Class 6A region semifinal.Told she had ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Officers: When an active shooter attacks, survive by taking action

Officers: When an active shooter attacks, survive by taking action

LARGO — An Illinois teacher used confrontation. A campus safety monitor in Seattle attacked with pepper spray and physical force. An assistant football coach in Indiana shouted as he chased him into the woods.All were civilians who took down an activ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Baseball: Calvary Christian picks up where it left off

Baseball: Calvary Christian picks up where it left off

CLEARWATER — This year's version of the Calvary Christian baseball team looks an awful lot like last year's team. The Warriors, who went 30-0 in 2017 and won the Class 4A state championship, picked up where they left off Tuesday night with a 6-...
Updated: 1 hour ago