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Robin Abcarian
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LOCAL Robin Abcarian

The story and spin behind ex-Marine Tahmooressi, jailed in Mexico

Former Marine is getting the kind of treatment other Mexican prisoners can only dream about
At times, Andrew Tahmooressi has been his own worst enemy
It's foolish to demand Mexico ignore the very justice system the US has helped it create

Although many things about the case against former Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi are murky, one thing is clear:

We should all be so lucky to have such a fiercely devoted mother.

Jill Tahmooressi's deft plucking of American heartstrings has been amplified by the Fox News echo chamber, helping turn her son's story into both a conservative cause celebre and a minor political headache for the Obama administration.

What we know about her 25-year-old son is that he acquitted himself with valor on the field of battle during two tours in Afghanistan, and made some whopping mistakes upon his return, including driving across the border on March 31 with three loaded guns in his truck, a serious violation of Mexican law, for which he is now on trial.

Thanks to the ruckus his mother kicked up, he is now receiving the kind of special treatment that his fellow prisoners can only dream about. More power to her.

Tuesday, at a news conference in a tavern half an hour north of San Diego, Jill Tahmooressi dissolved into tears as she described for the umpteenth time a phone conversation with her son on his first night in Tijuana’s La Mesa prison, when Andrew, who was diagnosed in March with post-traumatic stress disorder, told her he would not “last the night.”

He did survive, of course, and what followed were two escape attempts, including one described as a "ninja-style scaling of a wall topped with coiled barbed wire," and an incident in which he slashed his neck with a broken lightbulb. After that, he was moved to El Hongo prison in Tecate, one of a handful of Mexican prisons accredited by the American Correctional Assn., where he is now living in what his mother describes as "solitary confinement" and what others have called a "private cell."

There, he receives frequent visits from a pastor and is allowed to spend up to two hours a day on the phone. On Monday, after a five-hour hearing in Tijuana's federal courthouse, Judge Victor Octavio Luna Escobedo allowed him to spend 20 minutes with his mother, as families of other defendants in court that day stood outside the building, hoping for glimpses of their loved ones.

After firing his first two attorneys, Tahmooressi seems to have landed in capable hands. His current lawyer, Fernando Benitez, became famous in 2011 after successfully defending former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon against weapons charges. A raid on Rhon’s home that turned up 40 rifles, 48 handguns and 9,000 rounds of ammunition was performed without a legal warrant, Benitez argued, making evidence inadmissible.

He hopes to achieve the same outcome for Tahmooressi. On Tuesday, he indignantly explained that two customs officers violated Tahmooressi’s constitutional  rights by making him wait eight hours before being turned over to federal prosecutors, and by using a flawed search warrant, which was dated three days before the incident. (Customs officers, said Benitez, had a stack of blank warrants, pre-signed and pre-dated by an administrator, a practice he described as “ludicrous.”) On Monday, the pair testified, they were following protocol.

On Tuesday, Benitez announced that he would ask the judge to declare a mistrial. The motion will be filed next week.

If the judge throws the case out on technical grounds, we'll probably never know for sure whether Tahmooressi was telling the truth when he claimed that he crossed the border by accident after making a wrong turn out of a parking lot in San Ysidro.

But if the trial goes on, that question will be very much at issue. To find Tahmooressi guilty, the judge will have to determine that he intended to break the law by bringing military-style weapons and ammunition into Mexico, which has strict anti-gun laws.

In May, sources showed the arrest video to a reporter for Tijuana’s fearless weekly magazine Zeta.

In a story headlined "Ex-Marine did not enter Mexico by mistake," Ines Garcia Ramos reported that around 10:30 p.m. on March 31, as Tahmooressi began to drive into Mexico, border officers who noticed a mattress and other large items in his truck waved him over to an inspection area, where his  weapons were discovered during a search. Contrary to his assertion that he stopped to ask how to return to the U.S., she wrote, he appeared to be driving away from the border. (After his guns were discovered, he called 911, telling an American operator he had crossed the border "by accident ... and they're trying to take my guns from me.")

If he is convicted of illegally possessing guns and ammunition, Tahmooressi faces up to 14 years in prison.

Like many Americans, I hope the judge lets him come home, where he can get into treatment for his PTSD. By the time the case is resolved, Tahmooressi will have probably spent eight months or so in custody, which seems a heavy price to pay for what is either an honest mistake or very poor judgment.

At times, unfortunately, this young man has been his own worst enemy. After he was arrested, for instance, he claimed he had never been to Mexico before. In fact, he had crossed the border several times, including earlier on the day of his arrest, when he walked into Mexico, checked into Tijuana's Hotel Nelson, then checked out and walked back to the U.S. hours later. (This means that he left his three loaded guns and ammo sitting in his Ford F-150 truck in a San Ysidro parking lot for hours.)

Tahmooressi’s plight has inspired passionate feelings, particularly among conservatives who are outraged at what they see as the Obama administration's failure to take action. His mother's desperation has helped whip up those feelings. In May, she told CNN that “the brutality of being … unjustly in a foreign prison is worse than any experience I had with him serving two tours in Afghanistan. He was willing to die for his country as a Marine. Where is his country now when he needs it the most?”

What followed was so much rash talk about renegade rescue raids that she finally posted a note on Facebook asking supporters to chill out. She has since muted her rhetoric. At her news conference, rather than criticize American and Mexican officials, she thanked them for helping her son.

Yet there are still folks agitating for a rescue. On Tuesday, a supporter named Stasyi Barth, who had arrived in a Yukon SUV festooned with “Free Sgt. Tahmooressi" signs, told Jill Tahmooressi that she knew people “who will stop what they are doing and get him.”

“The fact that the Mexican government is getting away with this is mind-boggling and extremely frustrating,” said Barth, who lives in Murrieta. “He fought for our freedom and it’s our duty to bring him home.”

But the Mexican government is not "getting away" with anything.

"From the moment of his arrest, Mr. Tahmooressi's fundamental rights have been respected, including the rights to due process and personal integrity," the Mexican attorney general's office said in a statement in May.

And Obama administration officials have been closely monitoring the case from the beginning. 

“Quite frankly, Mr. Tahmooressi’s case has gotten a tremendous amount of attention from the State Department,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John D. Feeley, the No. 2 official in the department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and former Marine Corps officer. “This is a case we have raised repeatedly and at high levels with the Mexicans. Secretary [John F.] Kerry did it in May. I have raised the case with the Mexican ambassador in Washington, our ambassador in Mexico has raised it with the [Mexican] foreign secretary and we have had excellent cooperation in that we have had access to him on a regular basis.”

But that has not placated those looking to score political points.

Last month, Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe introduced a resolution calling on Mexico to release Tahmooressi. "It is ironic that this administration can deal with the Taliban to secure the release of a POW, but we will not do the same for a Marine imprisoned in Mexico. It is time for the White House to act."

But Tahmooressi is not a prisoner of war, neither is he on active duty.

Since 2008, Congress has appropriated $2.1 billion to help Mexico deepen its commitment to the rule of law. How foolish and hypocritical to demand that Mexico now ignore the very justice system we've encouraged it to create.

Twitter: @robinabcarian

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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