June 10, 2013
The Arizona Republic
Daniel GonzŠlez and Dan Nowicki
Life is slowly returning to normal for Yanira Maldonado, more than a week after the Goodyear mother was released from a Mexican jail.
Yanira and her husband, Gary Maldonado, returned to work on Monday, their first day back after Yanira spent nine days in a Mexican jail, accused of trafficking drugs after soldiers at a checkpoint said they found marijuana under her bus seat as the couple traveled back to Phoenix from a funeral in Mexico.
Yanira was released after a campaign, started by her husband to prove her innocence and secure her freedom, spread across the country with the help of social media and the assistance of several high-powered political leaders, among them Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
Flake called Gary twice while Yanira was in jail and called the deputy ambassador of Mexico twice to help secure her release.
Over the weekend, Yanira and Gary got to personally thank the Republican senator when he and his wife, Cheryl, attended a Saturday night welcome-home party at a church in El Mirage.
“I said, ‘Thank you so much for everything.’ He’s a very humble person,” Yanira said.
The Maldonados said they knew a member of their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Goodyear had invited Flake, who is a member of the LDS church. But they did not know if he would come.
“I was very surprised to see him and his wife,” Yanira said. “I know they have very busy schedules.”
Saturday’s party was hosted by the Estrella Ward, the Spanish-speaking LDS congregation Yanira attended before she and Gary married a year ago. About 100 people attended the dinner held at the church on Dysart Road.
Flake called the couple the day after Yanira was released and told them he would love to meet with her.
“I told her at that time that the reason she was out so quickly was because of the huge support system that she had with family and friends and the neighborhood and church and everything else. It was just phenomenal,” Flake told The Arizona Republic.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, Gov. Jan Brewer, U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, Secretary of State Ken Bennett, and state Sen. Steve Smith also helped secure Yanira’s release, the Maldonados said. But Flake was the only politician at Saturday’s dinner.
“It was really neat,” Flake said. “They were just really grateful for all the support from friends and family and others. That’s what it was all about.”
Gary said the couple recounted their ordeal to Flake, and the senator said he is working to prevent the same thing from happening to other innocent Americans traveling in Mexico.
“I thanked him and gave him a hug,” Gary said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t happen again.”
In Mexico, crime suspects are considered guilty until proven innocent. At a highway checkpoint north of Hermosillo, Mexican soldiers said they found 12 pounds of marijuana bundled in packages hidden under Yanira’s seat and underneath a vacant seat nearby.
The soldiers arrested Gary first, thinking that he had been sitting in a seat where the marijuana was found, but they then let him go and arrested Yanira instead, saying the drugs had been found under her seat.
As public pressure mounted, a judge ordered Yanira released from jail on May 30 after witnesses testified she was innocent and a surveillance tape at the bus station in Mexico where she boarded showed her carrying two water bottles but no drugs.
Gary said Flake told them, “It was amazing that we were able to keep the faith and overcome what we’ve been through.”
The case against Yanira, meanwhile, is not over, Gary said.
Federal prosecutors have appealed the judge’s ruling. It could take three months before the charges against Yanira are finally cleared, he said.
Yanira said she has had a lot of support from her family and church, and that she has been seeing a counselor to help her recover.
“I’m working on it,” she said. “It’s going to take a while.”