May 28, 2013 4:40 PM by Elizabeth Chuck, NBC News
An American woman who went to Mexico for a family funeral has been stuck there for nearly a week, accused of smuggling drugs and facing a potential 10-year prison sentence.
Yanira Maldonado's family says she is a victim of Mexican corruption and is hopeful a judge frees her today.
Six days ago, Maldonado and her husband, Gary, were on a bus to Phoenix after going to her aunt's funeral in Mexico. The bus was stopped at a military checkpoint outside Hermosillo, about 170 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, their relatives said.
Soldiers ordered everyone off the bus and interrogated all the passengers, but didn't question the Maldonados - Mormon parents of seven children, according to Gary's brother-in-law, Brandon Klippel, who also lives in the Phoenix area.
"They're very staunch Mormons. They're extremely active in their church, to the most far side that you could possibly be in the faith," Klippel said. "It's devastating."
Yanira has been charged with drug trafficking and possessing 5.7 kilos of marijuana "that were bungee-corded to the metal post beneath her seat. The minimum sentence is 10 years in federal prison," according to Klippel.
At first, soldiers targeted Gary, and police arrested him first. Hours later, police allegedly switched their story, and claimed the drugs were underneath Yanira's seat.
As Yanira was taken to jail, a local attorney arrived and allegedly told Gary, "You know how it works in Mexico, right?" and explained $5,000 would get her released.
"The attorney that Gary called was from a list of attorneys who were ranked on a list of how well they spoke English. He talked to the prosecuting attorney before he talked to Gary, and then he came to Gary and said, 'If we give them money, they'll release your wife.'"
Gary offered $3,500. The prosecuting attorney allegedly bargained for $5,000, which Gary frantically got wired to him from family members back home. After he managed to scrounge up the money - at this point a day later - he found out Yanira had been transferred from Hermosillo to a women's facility in Nogales, on the border.
"His attorney's assistant said in broken English, 'It's not about money anymore, and they want you to leave,'" Klippel said.
The U.S. Consulate in Hermosillo said it could not comment on the matter and referred all questions to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico City, which did not return a phone call seeking comment. The Mexican Consulate in Washington, D.C., also did not offer comment.
'Nightmare that felt surreal'
At 10 a.m. local time today, Yanira went before a judge with her Mexican attorney. As the afternoon dragged on, Klippel, who said he was at home "on pins and needles," said he had spoken to a Mexican official, who told him a judge was still hearing testimony from witnesses.
"At first, it just seemed surreal. You didn't believe it. You said, 'This is just going to blow over, it's a mistake,'" Klippel said. "The reality is sinking in now that in this country, this thing happens and we don't have a protocol to follow when this happens. What went from being a nightmare that felt surreal is turning into a reality that is overwhelming emotionally. Our family is just devastated at this point."
Yanira's family has visited her in jail.
"She's not doing well," Klippel said. "Just to get in, you have multiple guards with machine guns with their fingers on the trigger staring you down as you get in there. It smells awful. There's this big mesh window that she sits at, and she just cries, saying, 'I've never done anything illegal in my life.'"
Yanira is wearing clothes that someone else gave her in the prison because there are no uniforms, he said, and she's buying food from other inmates because the jail expects family members to provide meals for inmates.
"This is the most horrible circumstance," he said. "We want her home soon."
He's hopeful that will happen.
"They have witnesses who saw that they were the last ones to get on the bus," Klippel said. "They saw them put their luggage underneath and get on the bus without anything with them. How they managed to hide big blocks of marijuana and bungee-cord them underneath is overwhelmingly ridiculous."
Some of those witnesses will testify on Tuesday, he said.
"It's a challenge though. Some people won't come unless they're financially compensated, and some won't come because it's a Mexican court," he said.
Yanira could stay in jail for months if she is not released on Tuesday, another brother-in-law, Brian Neerings, said via a Facebook page he has been updating for the family.
"If she is not released within that 6 day window, they are transporting her to a facility in southern Mexico and she will be there for 3-4 months before an official case can be made from the attorney they retained this evening. We are hoping and praying that something happens before that 6 day window expires," he wrote.
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