On May 28, U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who is being held in a jail in Tijuana for crossing into the country with firearms, appeared before a Mexican judge for what was supposed to be his first evidentiary-type hearing. It wound up being delayed until June 4 because on Wednesday Tahmooressi fired his initial attorney Alejandro Osuna.
On March 31, Tahmooressi was arrested by the Mexican border patrol after he accidentally drove across the San Ysidro checkpoint and into Mexico with his three legally owned guns. It is a crime to knowingly enter Mexico with firearms and ammunition. The sentence can be up to 30 years in prison.
Tahmooressi's arrest has reignited the debate about Mexico's legal system. Based on my conversation with a former State Department official who spent 15 months on the border handling numerous border issues including the arrests of U.S. citizens, the hearing on June 4 will be “very cut and dry.”
The judge will determine basic facts. There will be questions such as did Tahmooressi violate Mexican law by entering the country with guns? Can Tahmooressi read? Can he see? Were the international border signs properly posted, warning that it is illegal to enter Mexico with firearms?
According to a spokesman for Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the judge will also determine if Tahmooressi really does suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as he has alleged. Mexican prosecutors are apparently conducting an independent psychological analysis. Tahmooressi’s attorney is in possession of his Department of Veteran's Affairs mental health records to prove his claims about his condition.
There is no dispute that Tahmooressi violated Mexico's gun-control laws, even though it was an accident. According to the Mexican Consulate General's website, "Claiming not to know about the law will not get you leniency from a police officer or the judicial system."
But legal procedure is not the only issue in this case. Tahmooressi’s “honest mistake” defense invokes an equally important issue of politics.
According to the former U.S. official, Mexico takes its sovereignty seriously and feels as if the United States does not respect its laws and independence.
For example, the U.S. and Mexico have inherent differences in criminal sentencing. Mexico does not have a death penalty; it views such punishment as cruel and unusual. Texas, on the other hand, does have the death penalty.
At the time Tahmooressi was arrested, Mexico was pleading with Texas not to execute convicted murderer and rapist Ramiro Hernandez, a Mexican citizen. Texas disregarded Mexico’s request and executed Hernandez on April 4th.
The Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry opposed Texas’ decision, stating, “This is the fourth case of a Mexican being executed in clear violation of the judgment of the International Court of Justice. The Government of Mexico expresses its most vigorous protest at the failure to comply.”
Mexico might be thinking, “You did not listen to us (about Hernandez) so why should we listen to you (about Tahmooressi)? You want us to respect your right to prosecute and punish. Now you must respect our right to prosecute and punish.”
Mexico may also be upset because our agencies and officials have a decades-long pattern of entering its country to fight the War on Drugs without its permission or knowledge.
In the nineties, U.S. Customs agents carried out Operation Casablanca, a money-laundering sting, without Mexico’s knowledge. This operation caused great friction between the two countries. “Casablanca was a hard punch to mutual cooperation and trust because it implied, in some ways, the violation of bilateral and international agreements,'' said then-foreign ministry official Miguel Ruiz CabaM-fas.
Then Operation Fast and Furious occurred, a recent D.E.A. program that ran thousands of illegal guns into Mexico without Mexico’s knowledge. The botched operation may be over but thousands of guns are still missing and presumably in the hands of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.
The good news is that Tahmooressi’s case has clearly reached the highest levels of government. Secretary of State John Kerry “raised the issue” when he was in Mexico last week for unrelated business.
Mexican officials have valid reasons for suspecting the U.S. does not respect its laws and autonomy; however, let's hope it will not use Tahmooressi’s innocent mistake to prove a point.
Mexico has the opportunity to forgive an American hero. In exchange, it is reasonable for the country’s leaders to demand that the U.S. expand the dialogue between our two nations about border security cooperation, illegal immigration and how to eradicate drug cartels.