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CBS 5 INVESTIGATES

Innocent travelers become 'blind mules' for drug cartels

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More than 3 million people cross the border at the De Concini Port of Entry at Nogales every year. (Source: CBS 5 News) More than 3 million people cross the border at the De Concini Port of Entry at Nogales every year. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Customs and Border Protection agent Juan Osorio says there are three to four narcotics seizures every day at the port. (Source: CBS 5 News) Customs and Border Protection agent Juan Osorio says there are three to four narcotics seizures every day at the port. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Yanira Maldonado of Glendale was held captive in a Mexican prison after marijuana was found under her seat on a bus from Mexico. (Source: CBS 5 News) Yanira Maldonado of Glendale was held captive in a Mexican prison after marijuana was found under her seat on a bus from Mexico. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Maldonado was released with the help of surveillance video that cleared her of any wrongdoing. (Source: CBS 5 News) Maldonado was released with the help of surveillance video that cleared her of any wrongdoing. (Source: CBS 5 News)
PHOENIX (CBS5) -

Almost one year ago, the country tuned in as Yanira Maldonado, held captive in a Mexican prison, pleaded with the public for help.

"They said they found something under my seat," Maldonado explained to reporters at the time. More than 12 pounds of marijuana were reportedly discovered by the Mexican military at a checkpoint near Hermosillo.

The newly-married Goodyear mother of seven was wrongfully accused of smuggling the drugs underneath her bus seat while traveling with her husband from a family funeral in Mexico.

At first, she said she was offered her freedom by the Mexican military in exchange for $5,000.

The incident sparked public outrage across the border.

After a major media blitz and nine days behind bars, Maldonado was set free.

Her attorney was able to show the court surveillance video that proved she was innocent.

For others who are wrongfully accused and caught in a similar situation, that kind of evidence doesn't exist.

Those people are often referred to as "blind mules." They are innocent travelers who unknowingly carry drugs across the border.  

These kinds of cases have been occurring along the border for years.

CBS 5 Investigates traveled to Nogales, where 3 million people cross the border at the De Concini Port of Entry every year.

Customs and Border Protection agent Juan Osorio talked about the challenges drug smugglers present.

"They're watching us constantly. They know what we're checking," Osorio said. "It's really hard for us to stay one step ahead of them."  

Osorio told CBS 5 Investigates there are three to four narcotic seizures a day at the port of entry, and agents always hear the same claim: "I didn't know there were drugs in my car. I don't know how it got there," Osorio said.

In some instances, those drivers could actually be telling the truth.

"It's a possibility. It's been known to happen," said Osorio, who's spent more than a decade searching cars.

Nearly anyone who crosses the border can be a victim.

Drug cartels see innocent people as good targets for a variety of reasons.

They don't get nervous when agents are searching their cars.

Some of them even have trusted traveler status, and unlike drug smugglers, they're not getting paid to transport drugs across the border.

"If you can get them from Mexico to the United States, you're going to triple or quadruple the value," said San Diego attorney Russell Babcock, who has handled dozens of "blind mule" cases and even wrote a book about what he's learned.

"Because of this greed and because they want to be able to sell this product eventually, they try to find these innovative ways that they can get the drugs. They'll do anything," Babcock said.

CBS 5 Investigates learned of several blind mule cases along the U.S. border with Mexico.

In California, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers found unsuspecting drivers coming from Mexico with magnets holding drugs underneath their cars.

The federal agency also warned Americans about fake employment ads popping up in Mexico, luring people across the border to unknowingly carry drugs back.

In Texas, trusted travelers who use the Sentri lanes were targeted.

An FBI investigation showed cartels studied their driving routines, duplicated their car keys and planted drugs for pickup in the U.S.

"I think there's been a lot greater awareness of this situation now," said Babcock.

The criminal defense attorney explained nearly everyone caught with drugs goes to jail. The federal minimum sentence is 10 years behind bars.

He said in those cases, the justice system is turned upside down.

"Guilty until proven innocent, it's the reverse of how it should be," said Babcock.

Babcock said for the victims who are truly innocent and fight back instead of settling for a plea bargain, it's a living hell, and says the vast majority of people who choose to go to trial are convicted.

Maldonado has her life back.

"I'm very blessed," she told CBS 5 Investigates.

Although she was likely a victim of extortion and not the typical blind mule, she wants people to realize the dangers are real.

"I was one of them, you know, and it's real. And we need to do something about it," said Maldonado. "This is still happening right now, unfortunately. It needs to stop."

Maldonado said she does not know when she will return to the country where she was born. 

In the meantime, the blind mule defense has been validated in the courtroom where at one time, a skeptical system would not take it into consideration.

"Since these most recent cases that have come out, the government has had to admit on several occasions that blind mules do exist," Babcock said.

For those who travel to Mexico, Customs and Border Protection said there are a couple of things you can do to try and protect yourself.

If you leave your car unattended for any amount of time there, they say to check the trunk, take a look underneath the car and make sure there's nothing there before crossing the border.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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