OK, I’m going to propose something radical. I’m sure it doesn’t fit into the strict confines of how our State Department conducts foreign policy, but here goes ...
How about we ask Mexico to do us a favor for once?
Not only has that sieve of a country sat back and watched as more than 100,000 desperate Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans streamed through on their northward search for a safer life, but they have also taken decades of generous U.S. foreign assistance without so much as a “what can we do for you?”
Well, here’s what they can do for us: They can expedite the judicial process for U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, held in Mexico since the last day of March. He is due back in court in Tijuana on Monday, but without some high-powered attention being applied, it’s unlikely he will be quickly released.
The quick backstory: As has happened before with Americans who are not familiar with U.S./Mexican border crossings, Sgt. Tahmooressi (pronounced: Taam-ah-REE-see) became confused by a graffiti-laden road sign south of San Diego. He accidentally wound up on a road from which there was no return and went straight into Mexico.
As Phil Dunn, a veteran Westlake Village trial lawyer who has been advising the Tahmooressi family, explained to me, “Andrew asked the Mexican customs official if he could just turn around, that he had made a wrong turn.”
A border agent told Andrew to drive forward, a bit deeper into Mexico, where Tahmooressi was asked what he had in his vehicle. He honestly told them he had just moved to California and among all his worldly possessions in the car were three legally purchased and registered guns. In Mexico, however, they were illegal.
“That was their probable cause to detain Andrew,” Dunn told me during a telephone conversation.
Tahmooressi immediately called 9-1-1 — he was still that close to the border — but he was told there was nothing California authorities could do for him since he was no longer on U.S. soil. Mexican authorities, long incensed by American gunrunning into their sovereign territory, descended on him.
This two-tour veteran of the Afghanistan war has been to hell and back. A resident of Florida, Tahmooressi had been in San Diego for less than a month, receiving specialized treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder, diagnosed after his exposure to prolonged combat and a devastating IED attack on his fighting vehicle. His mother, Jill, believes the mental confusion he suffers probably contributed to him taking that wrong turn into Mexico.
Since his arrest more than four months ago, Tahmooressi has surely lost any psychological ground he gained during his brief PTSD treatment.
Tahmooressi, 25, was initially held inside one of Mexico’s most notoriously dangerous institutions, La Mesa Prison in Tijuana, where he says vicious prisoners threatened to kill and rape him. He maintains he was beaten by guards, stripped naked and handcuffed in a standing position by both his ankles and wrists. Sleeping was next to impossible. It was like he was back in a war zone again.
The Marine’s mother made early contacts with U.S. media, and they produced a flurry of stories about her son’s plight. Those stories helped win Tahmooressi a transfer to a better prison with protective custody where he now feels safer. But media attention has faded and Mexico’s legal process to determine what to do with the Marine is painfully slow. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
So, I asked attorney Dunn, how much longer might it be before the Mexican judge hearing the case makes a decision about Tahmooressi’s fate?
“We are not in Kansas anymore,” Dunn said. He explained that the Mexican judicial system is different. Trials are not continuous; rather, there is one day of testimony and the next one may come weeks later. And what do officials in Washington say?
“They are very diplomatic,” Dunn said. “They have told us that the secretaries of state of both nations have, ‘Met face-to-face on this issue.’ ... But (they) just have no idea what will happen or when.”
Jill Tahmooressi said, “I know (Secretary of State John Kerry) raised the issue on May 21. However, I would not label Sgt. Tahmooressi as an ‘issue.’ I would label him an urgent, grave, serious concern.” He fought and nearly died for this country, she reminds us, “and now he is being held in captivity.”
This determined mother also managed to gather the necessary number of signatures on a White House petition — which is supposed to spark an automatic response from President Barack Obama, but she hasn’t heard a word. There’s no indication that Obama has even broached the subject of the sergeant with the president of Mexico.
Look, none of this is to say Tahmooressi shouldn’t have to face the music if he knowingly broke the laws of a foreign country. But just as it is here, Mexican law dictates that intent to commit a crime must be established. That’s what Tahmooressi’s defense attorney hopes to focus on during Monday’s hearing — that Tahmooressi, driving in an unfamiliar state, befuddled by confusing signs and his own illness, simply made a mistake.
On July 9, the last time Jill returned from visiting her son, she says a U.S. customs agent stopped her to talk. “He said, ‘You know what? Last night a Mexican military (man) by mistake crossed our border — with his rifle — and we just sent him right back.’” The discussion left her wondering why our supposed friendly neighbor to the south doesn’t return the favor.
The DHS reported that armed Mexican military troops and Mexican law enforcement officials have crossed the United States border more than 300 times since 2004 and none was prosecuted by the United States.
Maybe it’s time we stop being so nice to Mexico. Maybe it’s time we withhold some of the millions of dollars in aid we send to Mexico every year. Maybe someone at the State Department ought to simply say, “Hey, the guy is an American war hero. Do us a favor; let him come home.”
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.