Yanira Maldonado, with husband Gary: "I got strength through my faith and said, 'I'm going to be out,' and I got out."


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 south of the border.

Yanira Maldonado, 42, walked out of a prison on the outskirts of Nogales, Sonora, and into her husband's arms late Thursday after a judge dismissed drug-smuggling charges against her.

The judge determined Yanira 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.

After returning to the Phoenix area Friday, Yanira Maldonado said, "I got strength through my faith and said, 'I'm going to be out,' and I got out."

The governor of Sonora apologized for Maldonado's ordeal during a visit to Phoenix on Friday. He said he'd made sure she was safe and wasn't transferred to a federal prison and worked to ensure the court proceedings went quickly.

"In a few words I could say we're very sorry that she was in the wrong place in the wrong moment," Gov. Guillermo Padres Elias said.

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 are 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 only have been randomly assigned the seat under which the smugglers had hidden 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 Peña, 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, then removing them after the vehicle enters the U.S.

Those cases are rare, Peña said, because smugglers like to watch the drugs crossing the border closely.

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, Peña said, for drug carriers to admit they knowingly smuggled because they or their families were threatened if they disobeyed.

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, Ariz., said finding drugs under a seat of a public bus 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 assume the Maldonados were the smugglers, or to target them for a bribe.

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.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border