Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Straight Talk: How a US Marine Jailed in Mexico took the wrong turn in San Ysidro



By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


If you follow the cable news program "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" which airs on the Fox News Channel you're likely well aware of the details of the national news coverage about a U.S. Combat Veteran who took a wrong turn into Mexico on March 31 and has been in a Mexican prison ever since over puritanical and trivial weapons charges.

According to the numerous news reports circulating, Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi accidentally drove his vehicle with all of his possessions including three legally US-registered firearms across the Mexican border on March 31 through the San Ysidro Port of Entry due to an error caused in part by post traumatic stress disorder and poor road signage--more on that in a moment. He was incarcerated by the Mexican military and has been jailed ever since then. The Marine had another day in a Mexican court on Monday but remains in prison.

Regarding the Marine's claim that he made a wrong turn, I have been seeing comment after comment posted on news articles that making such a wrong turn was unlikely. Commentators are citing the fact the I-5 freeway is filled with adequate warning signs about the border and numerous regulatory signs are planted along the sides of the freeway warning drivers that bringing guns south of the border is illegal. The question I have to these commentators is: Are you sure he drove into Mexico via the I-5?

Yes, I will confirm that there are warning signs all over the I-5 freeway that are lit at night warning drivers of the Mexican border, the last USA exits, and the white warning signs that read "Guns Illegal in Mexico". I believe the freeway signs are sufficient. But even if those signs shined brighter than the casino lights in Las Vegas, it would have made no difference for the Marine because the I-5 was not the route he took when he made the wrong turn. Also, the Marine was in the middle of relocating and had all of his personal possessions in his car including the the three legally registered guns. That's the argument of why he had the weapons.

On the Record host Greta Van Susteren went down to San Ysidro in May and retraced the Marine's route. The mistake occurred between a border parking lot and the southbound onramp at Camino de la Plaza in San Ysidro which happens to be the last US interchange. During my field study down there a few weeks ago, I went to the very onramp myself to confirm the poor signage. According to the report and this CNN report, Tahmooressi parked his car at the Border Station Parking Lot and walked into Mexico. Here's the location of it on OpenStreetMap in relation with the onramp. He came back to the USA late at night, got in his car, came out of the parking lot, and wanted to head back to San Diego. Tahmooressi turned left out of the lot and into another left turn lane which turns north. He thought that turn would take him back to the I-5 north since it went north. But the turn is actually the southbound onramp loop that leads back to Mexico with no USA return. The distance between the parking lot exit toll booth and the ramp that led Tahmooressi back to Mexico is about 50 yards which gave him very little warning. Therefore, he got turned around to Mexico with no way back home.

And then there's the sign situation. Take a look at the photo on the right which shows the "Mexico Only" warning signs in relation to the Border Station parking lot. Keep in mind Tahmooressi drove out of this lot (the driveway to the left of the two pictured pedestrians) after dark and has been diagnosed with PTSD. The signs are not lit. Since the Border Station parking driveway was 50 yards away from the traffic light, it would have been too easy for him to swing pass and miss the large "NO USA RETURN" warning sign on the right. Back when this story took place, the small overhanging "Mexico Only" mounted on the traffic signal was showing its age as its black letters which spelt "ONLY" were peeling from the surface of the sign.  The "NO USA RETURN" sign on the left side of the road was also vandalized and covered in graffiti. Very easy for one with PTSD to miss those signs in the dark.

The ramp took the Marine to the port via the far right lane. The lanes were separated by jersey barriers. About 100 yards to the south of where the barriers end and just before the spot where the highway crosses into Mexico, motorists in the far left lane can make the last U-Turn back to the USA. But since Tahmooressi was in the far right lane, that was not possible.

Add to that poor signage alerting motorists of the last U-Turn back then. When Tahmooressi crossed, a small unlit U-Turn sign was leaned up against a portable jersey barrier. Too easy to miss in the dark in the far-right lane. One of the reasons why I went down to San Ysidro in the first place was to see if these signage problems were fixed to better prevent motorists from taking a wrong turn into Mexico. They were, thank goodness.

When Greta Van Susteren did her report back in May, a larger temporary "RETURN TO USA" sign was posted. When I went down there a few weeks ago, a large white "RETURN TO USA" sign was posted atop the barrier with three large arrows pointing where to turn with additional smaller signs in the left lane. Also, the vandalized and decaying signs on Camino de la Plaza have since been replaced. However, another fix that I would support and advocate is making the turn out of the Border Station Parking Lot a right turn only which would make it impossible for motorists to miss the "Mexico Only" warning signs along Camino de la Plaza.

Besides fixing transportation signage problems at the border, we do have one other grave injustice that must also be fixed: Freeing Tahmooressi, and any other innocent American in Mexican prison over strict gun laws who showed no threat to Mexican citizens. The US federal government needs to do whatever it can to get these people back home simply because the Mexican penalty for the charges is inhumane. The White House needs to intervene. Tahmooressi entered Mexico by mistake and the evidence shows there is plenty of reasonable doubt against convicting him of being a Mexican threat, smuggling weapons, or aiding and abetting the deadly drug cartels. I imagine there are other cases like this that have yet to be exposed in the media. We must do whatever it takes to get these people back. Yes, it's illegal to possess a gun in Mexico under penalty of prison, but where's the judicial discretion in the Mexican justice system? Even though I do not support Mexico's gun laws in of themselves simply because the policy leaves law-abiding citizens without defense, I would be fine with the penalty of imposing fines for simple infractions of the law without criminal intent as the Tahmooressi case demonstrates, but not prison time, let alone 7-21 years behind bars. But his intent to not reenter Mexico in the first place with the guns would too render the fine unjustified.

Mexican President Nieto needs to understand that such trivial rules and fundamentalism on gun laws clearly is inhumane, demonstrates cruel and unusual punishment, and angers US citizens to the point where whole organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars are staging boycotts against Mexico. The White House needs to pressure Nieto to solve this serious human rights problem and grant Tahmooressi and all other Americans unjustly incarcerated clemency. And that needs to happen as soon as possible.

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