Travel nightmares: The Mexican tourist arrested in Madrid with a gun in her suitcase

A Madrid court has dismissed the case, but the incident has proved a long and costly headache for the 20-year-old and her family

Karla Z. V. at Barajas Airport on May 11, carrying her suitcase which was found to be carrying a gun.
Karla Z. V. at Barajas Airport on May 11, carrying her suitcase which was found to be carrying a gun.JUAN BARBOSA

“Do you want to live in Spain for a while?” Under other circumstances, this idea would have appealed to Karla Z.V., a 20-year-old biology student from Mexico. But given she was facing three years in prison in Spain for illegal possession of a weapon, the question only made her panic. But it was all in jest. Her parents had good news: her case had been dismissed and she would not go to jail.

The news brings an end to a tumultuous story that began on April 27, when the Mexican tourist arrived at Madrid’s Barajas airport from Vienna and was arrested by Spain’s Civil Guard. Spanish authorities had found a nine-millimeter caliber pistol in her suitcase, as well as its magazine and 12 cartridges. She said the gun was not hers and had no idea who put it in her suitcase. The 20-year-old had come to Madrid, after traveling for two weeks with her parents and her 17-year-old sister. The trip was meant to have happened two years ago to celebrate her sister’s 15th birthday (an important milestone in Mexico), but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to arriving in Spain, the family had visited seven countries: France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. And just as the family was waiting to board their flight to Mexico, after a 10-hour layover in Madrid, Karla Z.V. was arrested.

The tourist was detained at Madrid airport and the next day, taken to court, where she was granted provisional release. She was allowed to keep her passport, meaning she could have flown back to Mexico. But her lawyer advised her to stay in Spain so as not to give the impression that she was trying to evade justice. Three weeks later, on May 19, she returned to Mexico.

The pistol, cartridges and magazine found in the suitcase.
The pistol, cartridges and magazine found in the suitcase.

From her home in the Mexican city of Zacatecas, the young woman tells EL PAÍS by phone how relieved she is that her case has been dismissed. While she thought it was “very unlikely” that she would be convicted, the issue still weighed on her. In her defense, her lawyer pointed out that the gun was found in the suitcase’s outside pocket, which can be opened quickly and easily. Judge María Isabel Durántez also took into account the defendant’s age, the fact she was traveling with her family and her clean criminal record. The judge pointed out that many people could have accessed the suitcase and left the weapon between the time it was checked in in Vienna and arrived in Madrid.

For Karla and her father, Guillermo Z., what should have been a 10-hour layover has turned into a very long and expensive stay. While her sister and mother returned home, she remained in Madrid with her father for 22 days. According to Guillermo Z., the unexpected trip cost them around €5,000 ($5,000), an amount that covers accommodation, food, initial lawyer fees and new plane tickets to Mexico. “It is not fair that there are heartless people who do this type of thing and who do not care in the least about the damage they cause to innocent people,” says Guillermo Z., who had saved for years for the family vacation.

The judge’s decision is provisional: the case can be reopened if new evidence comes to light before the five-year statute of limitations. Karla and her lawyer believe that this is unlikely to happen. In the meantime, she is determined not to let the bad experience put her off traveling. “I know that it is very unlikely that something like this will happen if you wrap your suitcase in plastic and put a lock on it,” she says. And despite everything, she has fond memories of Madrid, “a beautiful city, which for better or for worse I had time to get to know,” she says.

Karla’s lawyer had requested the weapon be tested for fingerprints to prove that the 20-year-old never touched it. Her lawyer also wanted the Austrian police to investigate how the gun made it into the suitcase. But since the case has been dismissed, no action will be taken. How, where and why the old gun was snuck into the suitcase will remain a mystery.

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