Let's Debate: A Severe Dishonor in Mexico and the Future of Metrolink

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

There is a disgraceful story unfolding in Mexico which involves a veteran. Before I share it to you, here is this week's Let's Debate: How do you see the future of Metrolink?

Metrolink is looking to get some rider feedback in an effort to put together a 10 Year Strategic Plan and future vision. The Transit Coalition already has a number of campaigns set for our regional rail system which includes 30 minute service frequency for the San Bernardino Line and long-range extensions into the Southwest region. Be sure to check out our Future Vision of Inland Empire Mass Transit.

I'll be in contact with the agency this week to get some more information on its Our Future is On Track strategic vision and will feature what is officially planned on Monday. Also, I've been networking with citizens along the I-15 freeway corridor and gathering suggestions of how transit infrastructure projects can be brought about at a faster pace. Many are suggesting that the private sector should be involved in the development process. More on that on Monday. Continue to post your ideas to us of how we can improve and pay for a robust regional transit system for the Inland Empire.

Dishonor toward U.S. Military Veterans and Citizens in Mexico

Less than 36 hours after Memorial Day, I ran across a horrible international story that took place at the Mexican border at San Ysidro which recently broke and needs to be brought to attention.

Back on March 31, U.S. Marine Andrew Tahmooressi who served two tours in Afghanistan fighting for our freedom from terrorism went to Mexico and parked his car in the San Ysidro area.

According to Tahmooressi’s mother, Jill, he walked back to the U.S. at about 10:30 p.m. He got into his car and entered the ramp he believed would take him onto the I-5 freeway leading north back to San Diego.

He had all of his personal belongings in his car including three legal U.S.-registered firearms. According to reports, he actually went the wrong way. The Marine accidentally entered into a poorly marked one-way transition road from Camino de la Plaza which actually leads back to the Mexican border. The warning sign that reads "NO USA RETURN" was vandalized, not lit, and was therefore too easy to miss after dark. I can tell you the layout is confusing because my family visited Mexico during the early 90's and there was one case where the family car drove into the very same transition road, but traffic was light enough for us to weave across the freeway to the final "U-Turn to USA" lane.

According to reports, the iconic "U-Turn to USA" sign, which for decades informed non-Mexico bound motorists of whom accidentally drove too far south to turn around, was torn down because of construction and replaced with a single poorly marked white "U-Turn" sign. This small replacement sign was leaned up against a portable jersey barrier which could not be seen through multiple lanes of traffic at night. In addition, numerous physical barriers now prevent motorists from changing lanes and the U-Turn to USA lane now has a lift-gate barrier which could lead motorists into thinking the lane is restricted.

Tahmooressi therefore missed the U-Turn to USA lane and drove into the Mexican port of entry with the firearms in his vehicle. Because the weapons are federally illegal in Mexico and the fact that Mexican military officials failed to work with local customs officers and the U.S. on the matter, Tahmooressi was arrested at the port, even after he called 911 to report the incident to U.S. officials. Federal officials have reported that Tahmooressi did not intend to smuggle the weapons given the significant reasonable doubts; therefore he is innocent of a crime. The U-Turn sign has since been replaced with a brighter digital sign by officials. But Tahmooressi still remains jailed in Mexico for no wrongdoing.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the justice system in Mexico has the highest worldwide number of arrests of U.S. citizens abroad and the largest U.S. prisoner population outside the United States. To be fair, many of the crimes committed are legit and there are many who are incarcerated justly, but there have also clearly been cases where innocent U.S. citizens with no intention of committing a crime in Mexico are arrested and incarcerated for no wrongdoing. The truth is many of the legal rights and protections that you and I enjoy here at home do not apply south of the border. Punishments for breaking many laws are more severe, even if no criminal act was intended. In the U.S., we enjoy the right to be judged by an impartial jury and are innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Under Mexican criminal law, the accused is essentially considered guilty until proven innocent and the judge decides cases. U.S. prisons and jails are difficult environments to serve out sentences, but Mexican incarceration is a traumatic experience. Mexican jails usually do not provide the amenities that U.S. jails do. They lack prison ministries, outreach and rehabilitation programs. Many prisons supply only the very minimum of basic necessities. In others, prisoners may have to purchase their own food, clothing, bedding and even pay rent on their cell. Most Mexican jails are corrupt, operating under organized cartel gang criminals. The U.S. State Department does work with U.S. citizens incarcerated in Mexico, especially those who are in jail unjustly. That includes Tahmooressi.

For nearly two months through Easter, the Marine was shackled in a disgusting cell in a disgraceful Mexican jail called La Mesa Prison, located in Tijuana's La Mesa district, next door to a Mexican courthouse. He has since been transferred to a maximum security prison, El Hongo, where he spent his Memorial Day. Tahmooressi is currently being housed in a private and empty cellblock away from the region's most dangerous criminals, but both the La Mesa and El Hongo jails are corrupt, operated by the country's notorious drug cartels. Worse yet, the Mexican prison system is simply another outlet for criminals to conduct destructive behavior. Sad to say, the illegal drug sales which occur in many parts of the Inland Empire flood these drug lords with our dollars.

The U.S. State Department is working on this matter, but the federal government and President Obama need to take the lead and get Tahmooressi as well as any other citizen locked up for no wrongdoing out of Mexico and back home to the United States immediately. There is absolutely no reason for the Mexican government to continue to hold Andrew Tahmooressi. No crime was committed, and similar abusive cases occur with U.S. citizens on a regular basis including a disgraceful example back in December 2012 involving U.S. Marine Corporal Jon Hammar, the 2012 wrong turn incident involving truck driver Jabin Bogan, and the 1997 prescription drug case involving David Busch. The U.S.A. sends hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico each year in aid, we provide tourism dollars, numerous U.S.-based charities generously assist impoverished Mexican communities, and their government has the cowardice to incarcerate innocent U.S. citizens including two of our combat veterans for absolutely nothing? That's not only grossly disgraceful, but a severe dishonor to those who serve our country.

These citizens are productive members of society, not criminals. The military men have demonstrated in their combat tours that they have what it takes to die for our country, for us, and for our freedom and rights so that grassroots transit advocacy and this blog can exist to hold our governments accountable to improve Metrolink, infrastructure and our bus systems. Tahmooressi had a closed-session hearing today in Tijuana which led to nowhere positive, but both the Mexican government and President Obama have the tools to stop this madness immediately. Free Tahmooressi and every innocent U.S. citizen.