Robin Abcarian
Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis

Supporters of ex-Marine jailed in Mexico should get facts straight

Escalating political pressure on Mexico over trial of ex-Marine held on gun charges is counterproductive

It's probably nice for the morale of former Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi that some California legislators are trying to take his case directly to the Mexican president, who is visiting Sacramento this week. But I fail to see how their actions will really help Tahmooressi, the former Marine who is on trial in Mexico on gun charges.

Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, the failed gubernatorial candidate, boycotted a luncheon with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday and held a protest outside the Capitol instead. He said he did not wish to dine with Tahmooressi’s “captors,” a charged word that has no place in this discussion.

Andrew Tahmooressi is not, after all, a prisoner of war.

He is a very unlucky young man who crossed the border into Mexico at San Ysidro last spring with three loaded weapons and at least 400 rounds of ammunition, all legal in the U.S. Mexican customs officers pulled him over and arrested him once they discovered the weapons, which are not legal there. Tahmooressi’s defense is that he crossed by accident, having made a wrong turn onto Interstate 5. He is now sitting in a federal prison in Tecate while his case is adjudicated in a Mexican federal court. Here's my take on the case, written after his most recent hearing Aug. 4.

Although the next hearing has not been scheduled, his attorney, Fernando Benitez, told me Tuesday that he expects it to be devoted to videotapes of Tahmooressi’s border crossing. Eighteen cameras recorded the event from different angles, said Benitez, who hopes they will prove that Tahmooressi did not mean to cross.

Tahmooressi's military service -- two tours in Afghanistan, including a battlefield promotion -- have raised the political profile of this case. According to his mother, Jill, he suffers from PTSD, with symptoms that include hypervigilance and paranoia, and had moved to San Diego from Florida to get treatment at the La Jolla VA.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to see a guy in this kind of shape, however meritorious his service, driving around with a bunch of loaded weapons. Do you?

My fervent hope is that the judge overseeing the case will accept that Tahmooressi made a simple mistake and find him not guilty of violating Mexican gun laws. Once he comes home, he will be able to get the psychiatric help he needs, which is not available in Mexican prisons, according to Benitez.

Many Americans are concerned about Tahmooressi's welfare, but this case has become above all a conservative cause celebre.

Many on the right were particularly outraged after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a real prisoner of war whose story we still have not heard, was traded for five Taliban leaders. They have accused the administration of leaving the wrong man on the field.

State Department officials have said repeatedly that they are monitoring the case. Secretary of State John Kerry has discussed it with his Mexican counterpart.

In June, Republican U.S. Rep. Edward Royce of Fullerton, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Mexico's Foreign Affairs secretary telling him that Tahmooressi's case should be resolved "expeditiously" because of his PTSD, which requires treatment "immediately."

In July, Republican San Diego-area U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former Marine, and 74 other House members, asked the judge in the case, Victor Octavio Luna Escobedo, for a quick and "favorable" resolution. Hunter has also asked the attorney general of Mexico to dismiss the case.

The Mexican attorney general has defended the handling of the case, saying in a statement to the media that “in Mexico, as in the United States, ignorance of the law, error or misunderstandings about the consequences of breaking the law, do not exempt an individual from responsibility.”

Tahmooressi appears to be in good legal hands.

But there is a kind of mass delusion out there, especially in Cliven Bundy Nation, that the president can and should simply pick up the Batphone and demand Tahmooressi’s release.

Patriots, it doesn’t work that way.

And elected officials like Donnelly are not doing Tahmooressi any favors when they mangle or overdramatize the facts.

Despite what Donnelly and others have said, Tahmooressi is not on active duty. He left the Marines in 2012. He is a reservist.

Republican state Sen. Joel Anderson of Alpine, who also declined to attend the luncheon, Tuesday declared that Tahmooressi was beaten by Mexican guards “until he felt his jaw go out of place.” On Tuesday, Tahmooressi’s attorney told me he had never heard such a thing, and that there was nothing in the court record to support it. He did tell me that Tahmooressi was sedated by a prison psychiatrist after an escape attempt which involved trying to scale a wall. He also said he considered the handcuffing of Tahmooressi to be “mistreatment.”

My colleague Chris Megerian reported Tuesday that Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore planned to personally deliver a letter to Nieto at the luncheon, asking him to intervene.

And while Benitez told me Tuesday he thinks it’s possible that the publicity surrounding the case might make the judge “a little extra careful” with his rulings, he doubts that “international pressure” will have any bearing on the outcome.

“If I were a judge and somebody told me what to do, I would take offense,” Benitez said. “It’s so brazen for anyone from the executive branch to presume they could hand down an order. It contradicts the whole spirit of the process. Mexico has been under terrible pressure from its own citizens, and the U.S., to be tough on guns, and we are. Then this happens, and all of a sudden we are supposed to go back on everything we’ve been saying for 30 years? It’s difficult.”

American officials, even with Tahmooressi's best interests at heart, are not making it any easier.

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