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Arizona mom turns to scripture to survive in Mexican jail

By Rafael Romo and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Thu May 30, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An Arizona mom accused of drug smuggling says she is innocent
  • Daughter to Mexican officials: "Please do your part and really investigate"
  • A Mexican judge is weighing the case against the Mormon mother of seven
  • Maldonado was on her way back from a funeral when authorities arrested her

Nogales, Mexico (CNN) -- Inside a Mexican jail, Yanira Maldonado wept.

A devout Mormon, the Arizona mother of seven said Wednesday she's been turning to scripture to survive ever since authorities falsely accused her of drug smuggling last week.

"Reading the scriptures, reading the Book of Mormon, praying, fasting," Maldonado told CNN. "And all the support that I've been getting from my family, my husband, my children, and everybody out there reaching out to help."

A judge is weighing whether to set Maldonado free after authorities accused her of drug smuggling and alleged they found 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat.

Maldonado maintained her innocence Wednesday.

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"I'm a good mom. I love the gospel. I'm LDS. And we work hard to have what we have," she said. "You know, we're not rich, but we're very honest and we always do our best to help other people."

The Mexican military officials who arrested Maldonado haven't made their case yet in court.

The soldiers were scheduled to appear Wednesday, but didn't show, according to a defense attorney. Hearings in the case are set to continue Friday.

Maldonado's family denies the charges and says they're optimistic the case against her is crumbling.

"We have high hopes," Anna Soto, Maldonado's daughter, told CNN on Wednesday. "So I'm just looking forward to that. Hopefully, Friday, I'm praying that she will be home and be set free."

It's a situation Maldonado said she never imagined when she boarded a bus last week to head back to the United States after attending her aunt's funeral in Mexico.

"I was at the checkpoint. They asked us to get off bus. And they were checking for drugs or I don't know what else," she said. "And they say they found something under my seat. But I never saw anything. They didn't show me anything. It was just amazing all that, what they did."

Fearing for her life

Earlier this week, Maldonado's cuffed hands gripped a metal bar as a truck carrying her to testify barreled down the street. One thought went through her mind, she told CNN, crying as she recalled her fear that the fast-moving Mexican police convoy would crash.

"I'm not a killer. I'm not a criminal. I'm just here by mistake because people are not doing their work," she said. "This is not right. I need to be back with my family. I need to be out of here. I need help."

Since her arrest, Maldonado said her views toward the country where she was born have changed drastically.

Asked before by friends about going south of the border, Maldonado never thought twice when she gave advice.

"I used to tell people, 'Come to Mexico. It's not true what they're saying. I go every year to visit my family. ... I come, I drive myself, nothing happens.' ... Look what's happening to me now. I cannot say that anymore," Maldonado told CNN. "I don't want anybody to go through this."

If she's released from prison, Maldonado says she's not sure whether she'll ever return to Mexico.

From a bus seat to a jail cell

Mexican authorities arrested Maldonado last Wednesday as she and her husband, Gary, 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.

Another daughter, Brenda Pedraza, called the arrest "outrageous." Her mother was recently by her side, she said, cradling her newborn granddaughter.

"She's just a wonderful mom and a wonderful grandma and she would never jeopardize her life to lose this, to lose her family," she told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.

The family relies on Maldonado and misses her, Pedraza said.

"I still need her, you know, being a new mom. I still need her advice, her guidance. We've heard that the minimum is 10 years. Ten years is a whole lifespan. We don't have that time, 10 years, to be separated," Pedraza said, choking back tears. "Please, to the officials in Mexico, please do your part and really investigate, because I know my mom has nothing to do with those illegal drugs."

After testifying in court on Tuesday, Gary Maldonado told CNN affiliate KTVK that he was feeling optimistic.

"We're hoping for the best outcome. ... We don't think they have a case," he said.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington said in a statement that a preliminary decision from the judge was expected soon.

Questions about arrest

A Sonora state official with extensive knowledge of the case told CNN there are questions about the arrest.

"Can you imagine?" asked the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and did not want to be named. "A passenger by himself or herself would have been unable to carry almost six kilos of marijuana onto a bus without being noticed. She must've been framed."

A regional office of Mexico's Defense Ministry said troops conducting a routine investigation stopped the bus Maldonado was riding in and 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 is being housed in a women's prison in Nogales while authorities decide her fate.

The Sonora state division of the attorney general's office said the investigation is ongoing and declined to provide additional information.

Her husband was told by authorities that regardless of his wife's guilt or innocence, he would have to pay $5,000 to secure her freedom, the family said.

He was able to cobble together the money but then was told it was too late. His wife had been transferred to another jail.

U.S. officials monitoring the case

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, is monitoring the case, his office said.

The State Department has also been in touch with the family.

"The U.S. Consulate in Nogales is monitoring the case closely," State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. "They are in regular contact with Ms. Maldonado and her family, and her legal counsel, and they're working to schedule another visit with her. The last time we were able to visit with her was May 24."

The State Department estimates that several thousand U.S. citizens are arrested in Mexico each year.

But it's unclear exactly how many U.S. citizens have been detained in Mexico, the State Department said.

"We don't have the exact breakdown for Mexico, and the embassy would not have that information either," said Elizabeth A. Finan, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affiairs. "However, I can say millions of U.S. citizens travel to Mexico each year, and most have uneventful trips. Arrests happen every day, as you might expect with such a high volume of visitors."

Some arrests go unreported to U.S. officials, and sometimes arrested individuals do not request consular assistance, Finan wrote in an e-mail to CNN.

"Arrest cases are not uncommon in Mexico," she said, "and our consular officers work hard to assist all U.S. citizens who come to us for help."

'Blind mules' unknowingly ferry drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border

Former Marine released from Mexican prison

CNN's Rafael Romo reported from Nogales, Mexico. CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet wrote the story in Atlanta. CNN's Christine Theodorou, Mariano Castillo, Paul Courson, Lateef Mungin and Rene Hernandez contributed to this report.

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