Phoenix • The family of a Mormon mother from Arizona imprisoned in Mexico for the past week says she is innocent after Mexican military personnel found 12 pounds of marijuana hidden under her bus seat while she and her husband were returning to the Phoenix area from a funeral in Mexico.
Family members believe that someone else may have been trying to smuggle the marijuana and that Yanira Maldonado just happened to be sitting in the seat where the drugs were hidden.
"We feel we have a strong case," said Larry Maldonado, Yanira's father-in-law.
Yanira, from Goodyear, Ariz., was returning to the Valley with her husband, Gary Maldonado, on May 22, when they passed through a military checkpoint near Hermosillo, Mexico, and the drugs were found. She has been trying to prove her innocence ever since. She is being held in a prison in Nogales, Sonora, Larry Maldonado said.
A federal judge in Nogales listened to witnesses for several hours Tuesday, and the family hopes to know by Friday whether the case will be dismissed, he said.
Yanira and Gary married one year ago and have seven children together from previous marriages, Larry said. They are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and met at church, he added.
Yanira is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico. She works with disabled children. Gary is an American born in the U.S. He works in the information-technology field, his father said.
The case has attracted national attention since family members began publicizing Yanira's imprisonment on social media.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake also has gotten involved after family members contacted the Arizona Republican.
Flake spoke about the case with Mexico's deputy ambassador to the U.S., Mabel Gomez Oliver, on Saturday and Sunday, an official in Flake's office said. Flake also spoke with Gary Maldonado on Sunday.
Larry Maldonado said Yanira and Gary feel like they are living in a nightmare.
They left Phoenix by bus May 19 to attend a funeral for Yanira's aunt near Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa, Larry Maldonado said.
On May 22, they were headed back to Phoenix on the same Mexican bus line, when they passed through a military checkpoint near Hermosillo.
The soldiers ordered everyone off the bus and took them to a room where their luggage was X-rayed, Brandon Klippel, Gary's brother-in-law, said in an email.
Yanira and Gary were the only Americans on the bus, Klippel said.
At first, the soldiers told Gary they had found the marijuana under his seat and arrested him, Klippel said. But then, police went to his cell and told him they thought the drugs had been found under his wife's seat and under an open seat on the bus and arrested her, he said.
Klippel said in the email that Gary's Mexican court-appointed defense attorney suggested he try bribing Mexican authorities to have the case dismissed, telling him, "You know how it works in Mexico, right?"
Through the lawyer, Gary offered to pay Mexican authorities $3,500 and then upped the offer to $5,000 after being told the initial offer wasn't enough, Larry Maldonado said.
In the end, neither bribe was accepted, he said.
Officials at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to be interviewed about the case.
They issued a statement that said Mexico's government is in close communication with the U.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," the statement said.
A spokesman at the U.S. State Department said during a briefing Tuesday in Washington that officials from the U.S. Consulate in Nogales had met with the Maldonados on Friday to make sure their rights were being protected.
Erik Lee, associate director at Arizona State University's North American Center for Transborder Studies, said American citizens have long complained about Mexican police asking for bribes to settle traffic violations.
But he found it unlikely that federal authorities in Mexico would try to plant drugs on American citizens for bribes because of the risk of causing an international furor that could hurt tourism, the country's major source of income.
"That is pretty high stakes," Lee said. "That goes against their economic interests."
What's more, Mexico's government in recent years has been trying to clamp down on police corruption and bribes at the state and local levels, he said.