NOGALES, Mex. — An American woman who was released from a Mexican jail cried out for joy when she crossed the border into Arizona. “I’m home! Finally!” Yanira Maldonado exclaimed.
Mexican authorities detained her last week and put her behind bars over allegations she tried to smuggle 12 pounds of marijuana under a bus seat.
She and her husband, Gary, were traveling from Mexico back to the United States when their bus was stopped and searched. Yanira Maldonado allegedly was sitting above the illegal stash.
Maldonado’s case sparked widespread media coverage and attention from U.S. lawmakers as family members pushed for her freedom. At a press conference early Friday in Nogales, Arizona, she thanked journalists, crediting them for her expedited release.
The quality of her conditions in jail also improved as the media coverage increased, she told CNN affiliate KPNX-TV in Phoenix.
A court official delivered the good news to her in jail Thursday. “I screamed,” Maldonado said.
The Arizonan and mother of seven had consistently denied the charges against her, and the court determined that the prosecutors did not provide evidence.
Her husband, Gary, tearfully embraced his wife after her release.
Though the court released her back to the United States, legal proceedings are not completely over, Gary Maldonado said. But his wife’s attorney in Mexico will take care of them in her absence.
Security footage revealed
Security camera footage revealed in court Thursday shows Maldonado and her husband boarding a bus in Mexico last week. They are carrying a purse, two blankets and two bottles of water.
It’s an everyday scene that plays out at bus stations around the world. But in this case, defense attorney Francisco Benitez argued that the images were a crucial piece of evidence.
Why? Because nothing they’re carrying, he said, could hold the amount of marijuana that Maldonado was accused of smuggling.
Video footage suggests that someone else brought the marijuana aboard the bus, the lawyer said.
Packages of the illegal substance allegedly recovered from under Maldonado’s seat would not have fit in her purse, Benitez said.
Her attorneys also presented documents that show that she and her husband have no criminal records in the United States, Benitez said.
Word that the surveillance video had been shown in court was a big relief, her husband said.
“That was the key that would help us prove her innocence,” he said.
“It showed right on the film clear as day there’s no way you could carry 12 pounds or 5.7 kilos with one arm,” he said.
The Mexican military officials who arrested Maldonado didn’t make their case in court. The soldiers were scheduled to appear Wednesday but didn’t show.
Official: She was framed
Mexican authorities arrested Maldonado, a U.S. citizen, on May 22 as she and her husband were on their way back to Arizona.
Gary Maldonado said he believes Mexican soldiers at the checkpoint wanted a bribe. A Mexican state official also told CNN it appears that Maldonado was framed.
Yanira Maldonado does not necessarily think she was directly targeted. “Someone smuggled those in there, and I probably sat in the wrong seat,” she said.
Nonetheless, she called on those who arrested her to “repent,” find “respectable work” and stop making people suffer.
A regional office of Mexico’s defense ministry said troops conducting a routine investigation stopped the bus Maldonado was riding in and found 12.5 pounds (5.7 kilograms) of a substance that appeared to be marijuana under her seat.
Troops turned the case over to the Mexican attorney general’s office, the defense ministry said. Maldonado was held in a women’s prison in Nogales, Mexico.
In an interview Wednesday with CNN, Maldonado, a Mormon, said she turned to Scripture to survive the ordeal.
“Reading the Scriptures, reading the Book of Mormon, praying, fasting,” Maldonado said. “And all the support that I’ve been getting from my family, my husband, my children and everybody out there reaching out to help.”
Family members’ tearful pleas for her release drew widespread media attention and caught the attention of U.S. officials.
U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Arizona, said he had spoken about the case with the U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Mexico’s ambassador in Washington.
State Department officials said consular officials met with Maldonado on Wednesday and May 24.
U.S. diplomats did the same things they would when a U.S. citizen is arrested in a foreign country, but maybe to a higher degree because of the high-profile nature of the case, a senior administration official said.