Jill Tahmooressi’s daily routine isn’t normal for one important reason. She spends her day in Florida waiting on a phone call from a Mexican prison, where her son has been locked up since March.
“Hey, honey. How are you?” she says when her cell phone finally rings.
Former Marine Sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi is on the other end, sitting in Mexican custody for what he says was an accident. The 26-year-old drove across the border toward Tijuana with ammunition and multiple firearms in his trunk on March 31.
“I didn’t even mean to be in Mexico. It’s a mistake for me to be here,” Tahmooressi said to The San Diego Union-Tribune in his only video interview since he went behind bars.
That’s all Tahmooressi’s friend Jonathan Robles-Paul needs to hear. He wonders why President Barack Obama has not talked publicly about the case.
“You would think the President of the U.S. would stand up for U.S. service members,” he said in an interview with Fusion.
Critics on conservative cable news and radio outlets agree. They’ve continually blasted the Obama administration for what they say is inaction. The White House counters that the State Department has been very engaged in Tahmooressi’s case while accepting that he broke Mexico’s strict gun laws and their legal process deserves to play itself out.
Robles-Paul and Tahmooressi became close friends in the Marines.
“He’s a complete open book” Robles-Paul said. “There’s nothing complex about him. There’s nothing mysterious about him.”
Tahmooressi never told his friend about two brain injuries he suffered while in Afghanistan. After leaving the Marines, he still felt the effects of war.
“If you say you went over there and then you came back the same person, you’re lying,” Robles-Paul said.
Another Marine encouraged Tahmooressi to leave Florida to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, at the Veterans Affairs facility in San Diego.
Tahmooressi’s mother Jill witnessed many of his symptoms.
“He wasn’t sleeping well. He was having nightmares,” she said. “His anxiety level and nervous level was increasing. We could tell that he was starting to isolate himself. So he would be doing solitary activities, that wasn’t his norm.”
A day after attending a PTSD session, Tahmooressi drove across the border toward Tijuana.
In his truck he had a 12-gauge shotgun, an AR-15 5.56 caliber assault-style rifle, a .45 caliber pistol, and two boxes of 12-gauge ammunition and 300 rifle rounds.
“I am at the border of Mexico right now. My problem is, I crossed the border by accident and have three guns in my truck, and they’re trying to possess, they’re trying to take my guns from me,” Tahmooressi said during his 9-1-1 call on March 31 after being stopped by Mexican officials. He was arrested and charged with possession of weapons and ammunition.
Fusion retraced his steps by starting at a parking lot in San Ysidro, California where he left his car earlier in the day and walked across a pedestrian bridge into Mexico. Although Tahmooressi paid for a hotel room in Tijuana, he decided to return to his car after only a couple of hours.
Upon leaving the parking lot, he says he intended to heading north toward San Diego, but a freeway sign at a main intersection covered with graffiti blocked his view, so he made a wrong left turn that led him to the Mexican border checkpoint.
We found that sign, which is now graffiti-free, but saw three other signs indicating the route toward Mexico.
“People that move frequently around the area, they know the roads,” said Oliver Bloch, a bicycle taxi driver who works in that intersection. “But I get asked a lot of times how to get to the freeway, and it’s pretty confusing for the tourists,” he added.
Mexican customs administrators claim he tried to cross the border without proper authorization for his guns.
“We have signs even before entering Mexico stating that firearms are illegal in Mexico,” said Enrique Manjarrez Uriarte, a customs administrator. “There is also a lane in customs designated to declare items, and he did not go in that lane,” he added.
Sergeant Tahmooressi is currently on trial. Fernando Benitez is his attorney.
“Andrew was the one who was stopped and basically told the agents, listen I made a mistake, I want to go back,” explained Benitez. “And within that conversation he mentioned the presence of firearms, now that’s when customs decides to search his vehicle.”
Benitez hopes the judge will dismiss evidence taken during the search.
“They escorted him out of customs and then served him, outside the checkpoint area, the order to search. We sustain that the order is invalid because it is an altered document. And it was done three days earlier,” said Benitez. “They broke every single rule and protocol of customs enforcement,” he added.
Weapons charges are a serious offense in Mexico. Alvaro Gonzalez, a Mexican law expert following the case, believes Tahmooressi shouldn’t receive special treatment.
“He should be judged like any other citizen, be it Mexican, American or any other nationality. And if there was anything abnormal regarding his rights or a violation of his human rights, he should be freed,” Gonzalez said.
Defendants with weapons charges aren’t allowed to post bond in Mexico, and Tahmooressi tried to escape from jail during his first night there. His mother says he was trying to get away from violent cellmates.
“I gave him the strength through my prayers. He said that that prayer gave him the strength to get out of that situation. To get to a safe part of the jail where he would be protected. But he wasn’t. He was beaten, he was beaten savagely by the guards,” she said.
The Mexican Attorney General’s office denied those claims but worked with U.S. officials to move him to another facility, the El Hongo Penitentiary.
The State Department says it continues to work with Mexican officials on the case while respecting the country’s legal system.
“I would like to see President Obama, pick up the phone and not only call me, but also call the honorable president of Mexico,” Jill Tahmooressi said. “Just to explain that there’s a Marine in your jail. And I would like you to look into his case and see if you can expedite it.”
Andrew Tahmooressi’s case is continuing, with a court date next week expected to include surveillance video from the time of his arrest. In the meantime, Jill Tahmooressi waits for her chances to hear that familiar voice on the other end of the line.