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The Complex Case of a US Marine Held for 'Accidentally' Taking Guns to Mexico

Andrew Tahmooressi was arrested in Mexico for illegal firearms. He says he missed an exit, but more complicated details have emerged.
May 29, 2014, 7:30pm
Photo via AP/Jeri Clausing

US Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi was arrested in Tijuana nearly two months ago for entering Mexico with several firearms, in violation of Mexican law. He claims his entrance into the country was an accident, a case of a missed exit on the freeway.

In recent weeks, as a media and political campaign to get him freed has picked up steam, and Tahmooressi has been lauded as a “hero,” a more complex portrait of the combat veteran, who is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, and the details of the case have emerged. According to claims made to VICE News by a Mexican customs official, the way that Tahmooressi was transporting the guns would also have violated US regulations.

'They were all loaded… and ready to fire.'

Mexican authorities stopped Tahmooressi on the night of March 31 after he had entered Mexico with a 5.56-caliber rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .45-caliber pistol, as well as more than 400 rounds of ammunition. Alejandro González Guilbot, chief Mexican customs officer at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border, told VICE News that the firearms found on Tahmooressi were not locked in a container, out of reach, and unloaded, as required by California law.

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“They were all just wrapped in his belongings — clothes, a blanket,” the official said. The rifle was found behind the driver’s seat, the shotgun on the passenger seat, and the pistol was in the driver-side door pocket, along with several cartridges. “They were all loaded… and ready to fire,” Gonzalez said.

Mexico has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, which is why highways leading into the country from the US are peppered with signs warning drivers that “weapons/ammo are illegal in Mexico.” Tahmooressi would have passed such a sign, as well as one signaling the last US exit, as he drove south from San Diego before reaching the El Chaparral checkpoint on the Mexican side of the international line.

'He absolutely, emphatically, would never have sold his weapons. He needed those weapons, those were his self-defense.'

“He never indicated that he was armed,” Gonzalez told VICE News. “He entered the country around 10.30 PM and he made his 911 call an hour later… once he was practically in military custody.”

During this 911 call, the young marine sounds as though he is unaware of the severity of his situation. “They are trying to take my guns,” he tells the dispatcher. “You are not on American soil anymore,” the dispatcher responds. “I can’t really help you.”

The 911 call that Sgt. Tahmooressi made on the night of March 31.

Tahmooressi initially told Mexican authorities that he had never been to Mexico and was unfamiliar with the area.

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Later news reports, however, revealed that he had in fact visited the country on at least one previous occasion. In addition, his mother, Jill Tahmooressi, told VICE News that the reservist had been to Tijuana at least once before to party with friends, and that she was aware of a girlfriend whom Andrew had met in church, who is from Tijuana but is a US citizen living in San Diego.

This discrepancy, Jill claims, is due to the fact that Tahmooressi’s attorney coached him to lie to officials in the first days of his detention. That attorney, Alejandro Osuna, told reporters in Tijuana on Wednesday that Tahmooressi had fired him.

“We had some disagreements about how information was presented,” Osuna said, according to U-T San Diego, adding that he believed Tahmooressi is innocent.

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Tahmooressi’s firing of Osuna temporarily threw his case into limbo, as Wednesday’s scheduled hearing was cut short because he did not have proper representation. The marine is now scheduled back in court on June 4.

In an interview with VICE News, Jill Tahmooressi said her son is innocent, adding that he was diagnosed with PTSD at the Veteran’s Hospital in La Jolla, California, on March 12. She described him as “hyper-vigilant.”

“He absolutely, emphatically, would never have sold his weapons,” Jill said from her home in Weston, Florida. “He needed those weapons, those were his self-defense. In 2013, he was having hunter-prey syndrome; he was the prey. So he never would have sold his firearms.”

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Asked if Andrew exhibited signs of paranoia, Jill responded: “Yes, definitely.” “I’m a nurse,” she continued. “We observed escalating symptoms of PTSD. And that’s why we told him, ‘You’ve got to get professional help.’”

‘I am the person who handed over El Chapo’: A VICE News exclusive. Read here.

According to his mother, Andrew left for California in January in search of treatment. He had been living in his Ford F-150 pickup truck and had been unable to find permanent housing in California. Jill said she was unaware of the permit status of his guns in Florida or California, or how he managed interstate travel with firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

“I have no idea,” she said. “He packed up all of his possessions, which included his legally purchased firearms.”

As Tahmooressi awaits a resolution, an intense letter and petition campaign calling for top-level US intervention on his behalf has taken off. Conservative members of Congress in particular have latched onto Tahmooressi’s ordeal.

If Tahmooressi has a mental disorder, federal law would prohibit him from carrying loaded firearms.

“We believe Andrew never intended to enter into Mexico, and reached a border checkpoint only after missing an exit and mistakenly entering the El Chaparral inspection area,” Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) wrote in a May 7 letter to Mexico’s federal attorney general, asking that Tahmooressi’s case be dismissed. “We fully respect Mexico’s right to enforce its laws, but we believe Andrew is not a criminal or a weapons trafficker.” More than 20 members of congress co-signed the letter.

As of today, Tahmooressi has spent 59 days behind bars. He was first held in the general section of the La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, before authorities said he suffered a self-inflicted stab wound during an escape attempt.

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“I considered it a highly intellectual strategic move to get into an even safer part of the jail,” Jill told VICE News, adding that she didn’t think the incident was a suicide attempt. “He did what any marine would do. And that’s improvise, adapt and overcome.”

Thousands of mothers in Mexico march for their missing loved ones. Read more here.

Former Congressman Alan West, from Tahmooressi’s home state of Florida, told Fox News that the marine “didn’t have a good map and compass direction” and that Mexican officials should have just given him a “Vaya con Dios” and let him go. Yet while the congressional complaints keep piling up, key questions about the sergeant’s guns on the north side of the border remain unanswered.

If Tahmooressi has a mental disorder, federal law would prohibit him from carrying loaded firearms. However, there is no proper system in place to regulate weapons that are already in someone’s possession at the time of a diagnosis.

After the self-inflicted stab wound in jail, Tahmooressi was restrained for more than a month to keep him from further harming himself, his mother said. On May 8, he was transferred to a maximum-security prison, El Hongo, about 30 miles east of Tijuana. Since then, the marine has been held apart from other prisoners.

Tahmooressi’s mother said she expects that Andrew will soon see freedom, but is worried that her son will not get a fair trial in Mexico. The customs official’s claims, she said, are false. “It’s an absolute lie, uncategorically a lie.”