PHOENIX — The weeklong detention of an American woman after Mexican authorities said they found 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat illustrates just one of the perils Americans face while traveling in Mexico.
Yanira Maldonado, 42, walked out of a prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico, and into her husband’s arms late Thursday after a judge dismissed drug-smuggling charges against her.
The judge determined Maldonado was no longer a suspect after viewing video that showed the couple climbing on the bus with just a purse, blankets and bottles of water.
“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 outside the jail before crossing through the Nogales port of entry into Arizona.
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With kidnappings, drug cartel shootouts and other violent crime pervasive in parts of Mexico, the tourism industry has taken a hit, although popular destinations like Cancun as so well-protected that problems are rare.
Kidnappings and cartel violence are prominent among the U.S. State Department’s lengthy set of warnings about travel in Mexico. But there are also warnings about getting caught up in drug smuggling, either by being used as a “blind mule” who doesn’t know drugs have been put in their car or luggage, or by being strong-armed by smugglers who threaten harm if a person doesn’t carry drugs.
Maldonado also may have been caught up in a shakedown by Mexican police who were seeking a bribe. Her husband said police sought $5,000 to let her go.
She may have just been randomly assigned the seat under which the smugglers hid the pot. Or she could have been put there on purpose by smugglers who hoped an American was less likely to be targeted for a search and to provide cover for the real smuggler.
Alonzo Pena, who retired as deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2010 and was once stationed in Mexico, said someone else on the bus probably put the drugs under Maldonado’s seat without her knowledge and watched her throughout the trip.
The U.S. State Department also warns that criminals are increasingly affixing drugs to the bottom of parked cars in Mexico, the removing them after the vehicle enters the U.S.
Those cases are rare, Pena said, because smugglers like to closely watch the drugs crossing the border.
Eric Vos, a lawyer with the U.S. Office of Defender Services who trains federal public defenders, agreed that slipping drugs into unsuspecting travelers’ cars or luggage isn’t all that common.
“There’s just like a million reasons why the blind mule thing is a difficult angle,” Vos said Friday.
It’s more common, Pena said, for drug carriers to admit they knowingly smuggled because they or their families were threatened if they disobeyed.
A highly acclaimed architect who designed some of Tijuana’s most prominent buildings was given an unusually light sentence of six months in prison in San Diego last year for trying to enter the U.S. with nearly 13 pounds of cocaine hidden in his minivan’s battery.
Eugenio Velazquez, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, claimed drug traffickers threatened to kill him if he refused.
Another old smuggling tactic is to advertise work as security guards, housecleaners and cashiers in Mexican newspapers, telling applicants they must drive company cars to the U.S. They aren’t told the cars are loaded with drugs.
There were 39 arrests at San Diego’s two border crossings tied to the ads for seemingly legitimate jobs between February 2011 and April 2012, according to ICE, prompting the agency to take out ads in Mexican newspapers warning about the scheme.
An Arizona sheriff who has spent more than 40 years along the Mexican border said Maldonado’s case probably was a shakedown.
“They’ve got some good, courageous law enforcement officers in Mexico,” said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. “Coupled with that, you’ve got really corrupt ones too. And that goes at all levels.”
Estrada, whose territory includes Nogales, said finding drugs under the seat of a public bus should not have necessarily implicated Maldonado and wouldn’t have been enough to arrest her in the U.S.
“Something underneath somebody’s seat, anybody could have put it there,” he said.
But having Americans on board the bus made it easy for police to either assume the Maldonados were the smugglers, or to target them for a bribe.
“It just looks funny. In my opinion, it was unreasonable based on what little that they had,” Estrada said. “If you’re an outsider, if you’re an American, even a Mexican-American, you’re a target. You stand out like a sore thumb.”
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.
All the passengers were ordered off the bus in the town of Querobabi and a soldier searched the interior. The soldier told his superiors that packets of drugs had been found under two seats, including Yanira Maldonado’s.
Her husband, Gary Maldonado, said a man sitting behind them on the bus fled during the inspection and might have been the real smuggler.
Maldonado was held without bail for a week because under the Mexican judicial system, she had to prove she was innocent. The family’s lawyer in Nogales, Mexico, Jose Francisco Benitez Paz, said the video of the couple boarding the bus did just that, although prosecutors are pursuing a routine appeal.
After spending the night in a hotel on the U.S. side of the border, the Maldonados were expected to arrive in Phoenix on Friday evening to be reunited with their seven children. But after her release, Yanira Maldonado said she didn’t blame her home country.
“It’s not Mexico’s fault. It’s a few people who did this to me and probably other people, who knows?” Maldonado said near the jail after she was released. “I’m still going to go back.”
Silva reported from Nogales, Mexico, and Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City and Luis Castillo in Nogales, Mexico, contributed to this report.