MEXICO CITY — Prison authorities in Tijuana, Mexico, have shackled a decorated U.S. Marine veteran of two combat tours in Afghanistan to his cot in a prison infirmary, restraining each of his limbs, on charges of introducing outlawed weapons into Mexico.
The Marine reservist, Andrew Tahmooressi, 25, who is from Weston, Fla., outside Miami, drove his black Ford F-150 pickup through the San Ysidro, Calif., border crossing into Tijuana on April 1, carrying his worldly possessions, including three U.S.-registered firearms.
Tahmooressi, who suffers from what his mother calls “directional dysfunction,” got lost near the border after dark. He and his family say he took a wrong turn into Mexico.
Mexican prosecutors have slapped three firearms charges on him, and his fate has been clouded by an attempt to escape the La Mesa penitentiary April 6 that involved ninja-style scaling of a wall topped with coiled barbed wire.
Tahmooressi’s situation parallels that of a another Florida Marine veteran who was held for four months in a Mexican border prison in 2012 for carrying an antique shotgun in his motor home on his way to surf in Costa Rica. A media uproar and pressure from U.S. legislators helped win the freedom of that Marine, Jon Hammar, who grew up in Miami.
In a statement that he signed earlier this week, Tahmooressi said he had crossed the border inadvertently while he was looking for housing in the San Diego area so he could begin treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at a nearby Veterans Affairs facility. Tahmooressi had received his official PTSD diagnosis on March 20.
“I accidentally drove into Mexico with 3 guns, a rifle (AR-15), a .45 cal pistol and a 12 gauge pump shotgun with no intentions on being in Mexico or being involved in any criminal activity,” Tahmooressi wrote in a signed privacy waiver this week for the office of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine veteran himself whose district is near the border.
Tahmooressi grew up in a gated community in Weston and graduated with honors from Cypress Bay High School in 2007. He earned a pilot’s license at age 17, then headed off to Alaska’s Kodiak Island, where he fulfilled a dream of joining a commercial fishing crew.
“They went out into the Bering Sea. They pulled up something like 20,000 pounds of halibut a day,” said his mother, Jill Marie Tahmooressi, a nurse at Miami Children’s Hospital.
After returning to Florida and entering a local community college, Andrew Tahmooressi decided he wasn’t ready for schooling, and joined the Marines in 2008.
He served two combat tours in Afghanistan, winning a rare combat field promotion to sergeant in Helmand province. Earlier, in Marjah district, a homemade bomb upended his combat vehicle but he survived.
In 2012, Tahmooressi mustered out with an honorable discharge but he remains a reservist with a commitment until 2016.
He returned to Weston to be with his father, Khosrow “Paul” Tahmooressi, an Iranian-born engineer, and his mother, and to pursue a dream of training as a professional pilot at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. But the demons of war dogged him.
“He had been struggling for all of 2013,” his mother said.
He borrowed the family’s Ford pickup and drove to California, where he received an official PTSD evaluation at a VA facility.
U.S. officials have visited Tahmooressi at least nine times since his arrest the night of April 1, and the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana “is taking all possible steps” to ensure his safety, William W. Whitaker, the American citizen services chief, said in an email to a staff member of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that McClatchy obtained.
Tahmooressi’s two-day detention in a holding pen, followed by detention at La Mesa Penitentiary, has been far from calm. The first night was the worst.
“When he called me, with all the background noise, it sounded like a riot was going on,” his mother said. “He said, and I quote, ‘Mom, I’m not going to make it through the night. … There are hit men in that cell with me.’”
His escape attempt came after he was put in with the general prison population at La Mesa. On April 6, he was placed in a single-person cell, where he apparently stabbed himself in the neck, either as a suicide attempt or a ploy. After getting stitches at Tijuana General Hospital, he was placed in the infirmary.
His “arms and legs are restrained because the infirmary is an open room with access to many objects, but the cuffs are doubled in length so that he has some movement and padding and bandages are between his skin and the cuffs to prevent injury,” Whitaker wrote in the email.
Tahmooressi’s mother visited him April 14 at the penitentiary.
His mood was grim.
“I would say, precarious at best, fearful, nervous,” she said in a telephone interview. “He’d already had his life threatened. Very anxious about the legal process, highly distraught.”
More news came this week. Whitaker wrote to Jill Tahmooressi to say the consulate had gathered a summary of VA medical records of her son’s ailment, and an affidavit, and presented them to the judge. A trial is set to begin May 28.
“We learned today that the prison system intends to move Andrew to another penitentiary called El Hongo II, a new facility located near the town of Tecate, about 40 minutes east of Tijuana,” Whitaker wrote. “There, he will be in a single cell.”
That move may be imminent. Whitaker wrote the family Wednesday that prison authorities “indicated that this would happen in around a week.”
Legislators, including Hunter and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who lives in Weston and is the chair of the Democratic National Committee, have voiced concern about the case.
A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, Sean Bartlett, said she had “instructed her staff to get in touch with the State Department right away to ensure that Andrew’s case was being handled as expeditiously as possible.” He said the legislator was “in close contact with the State Department as the trial approaches.”
For his part, Tahmooressi offered a simple plea at the bottom of his half-page handwritten statement allowing the public to be informed of his plight.
“Please help, thank you very much. I appreciate anything you can do. Thank you,” he wrote on his U.S. privacy waiver form.