What should a tourist do if arrested in Mexico and accused of carrying drugs?
By several accounts, Phoenix-area resident Yanira Maldonado did everything right when federal police said they found 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat, setting off a weeklong drama that ended with her release from jail after a court found the allegations were unsubstantiated.
The steps authorities say you should take:
NOTIFY YOUR CONSULATE
If you don't have your consulate's phone number — and you should — U.S. authorities say to insist that you be put you in touch. Consulates can reach family and friends and provide a list of attorneys.
The U.S. State Department has a free online service to register your travel plans and better help in an emergency. Registration is at https://step.state.gov .
"Reaching your consulate always works to your advantage," said Juan Tintos, tourism secretary for Mexico's Baja California state, which includes Tijuana.
HIRE A MEXICAN ATTORNEY
Many recommend Americans hire an attorney in Mexico because the country's legal system is so different, presuming guilt instead of innocence. Good attorneys also know how to handle demands for money, distinguishing shakedowns from legitimate expenses for legal requirements.
"They're never going to tell you it's a bribe," said Alonzo Pena, who retired as deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was once stationed in Mexico. "They'll say it's a fee. It's disguised as a legal requirement to move your case forward. Just make sure you do it through an attorney."
APPEAL TO THE NEWS MEDIA
Pena, who suspects someone else on the bus put the drugs under Maldonado's seat, said the family was wise to seek news coverage.
"It brought attention to it," he said. "That really helped her a lot."
Be mindful who you associate with when traveling long distance in Mexico, especially if you are traveling north (the direction most narcotics are traveling). Do not become friendly with strange people who are offering to trade you seats, buy you a beer, ect. Small time smugglers headed north with narcotics do take buses and will at times attempt to place their load underneath the seat of a woman or a newly found friend. By doing this they put the narcotics under another unknowing traveler until the trip is over.
If you have to talk to authorities or are at risk of being arrested, stay calm and communicate as best as possible. If you do not speak Spanish find someone that can translate for you. Authorities will typically talk to you until you become defensive or combative. At that point your going to jail so someone else can deal with you later.
The chance of this happening to you are slim, but it is better safe than sorry. Minding your own business, staying alert, keeping a low profile, and staying away from trouble is your best bet to avoid ever having to worry about Mexican jail.