Mexico is about to do something both vindictive and pointless. It’s close to sending a U.S. Marine reservist named Andrew Tahmooressi to prison for the crime of crossing the border with a loaded shotgun, pistol, and assault rifle—all three of which were licensed in his name. Officials south of the Rio Grande want to make a statement: Mexico is sovereign!
Only they don’t mean it in a “hey, we’re a place, too” kind of way. What they mean is: Wrath to the uttermost! How dare ye quarrel with the mysterious administration of the sovereign!
Now, it’s true that the object of this sovereign wrath likely violated the law, but he says he wound up at the border checkpoint where he was apprehended after making a wrong turn. The case against him could have been dropped long ago, but Mexican officials press on, that the rest of us may marvel that their legal code does in fact exist, and that it can be enforced with no bribes changing hands. Only we can’t witness that, of course, because judicial proceedings in Mexico are secret, a mysterious administration rather more corruptible than the one Jonathan Edwards had in mind.
In Mexico, popular sentiment is opposed to releasing Tahmooressi simply to satisfy U.S. demands. One academic south of the border says that U.S. lawmakers petitioning for the marine’s release “don’t understand the concept of sovereignty.” As Vicente Sánchez Munguía, a researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte puts it, the political pressure from members of Congress “shows that certain parts of the United States don’t see us as equal countries.” To which the honest reply would be, make that “almost all parts.” Culture aside, the only sense in which the United States and Mexico are equal is that they are indeed both countries. But imprisoning a Marine won’t raise Mexico’s stature.
El Universal’s widely read Washington correspondent, J. Jaime Hernández, also sees the case as a matter of respect. When members of Congress petition for Tahmooressi’s release, he writes, it shows they think their “neighbor to the south is still that brothel, that dive bar district where the Marines used to go for all sorts of excesses and abuses that they could never get away with on U.S. soil, knowing that the next day they’d be rescued by buses from the military bases….Many of them think that law enforcement here is a joke, and that if it comes down to it, you can buy them off.”
Well, yes, and so do many Mexicans, who know the problem isn’t the image of corruption, it’s the corruption. Several commenters in the Mexican media wondered why Tahmooressi didn’t just pay the bribe like everyone else. One offered a particularly bracing counterpoint: “In a nutshell, we’ve got another American soldier who gets arrested and thrown into one of our lion’s dens, these concessions run by organized crime, and then gets extorted and beaten down (democratically, like anyone else). Haven’t we learned yet that this sort of thing has repercussions in the treatment of our countrymen who cross daily to the U.S. on foot, and then have to spend their lives looking over their shoulder?”
There are at least three matters of national pride that have come into play: the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal, past diplomatic battles over Mexican nationals executed in Texas, and, of course, anti-immigrant sentiment on our side of the Rio Grande. There’s nothing we can say about Fast and Furious; Mexico’s right to be mad that the Justice Department let slip guns that were then used in scores of murders. Attorney General Eric Holder never even called Mexico to say sorry, although he did apologize to the family of the one American victim.
On the other hand, we have no reason to apologize for the executions of Ramiro Hernandez or Jose Ernesto Medellin, who were both indescribably vile and indisputably guilty. Our flouting of an edict from the Hague rankled diplomats and demagogues, but it’s not the sort of thing that registers with anyone of common sense. As one commenter on a Mexican news site put it, challenging the tired old complaint about the two killers’ lack of consular access, “why don’t you tell me which one of them you’d have wanted for a neighbor.”
The more difficult problem is immigration. While the Right here gets angry about our de facto policy of benign neglect, what Mexico sees is hostility.
“I was watching the way the media in the U.S. plays this and they’re practically laughing at the Mexican justice system,” wrote one commenter. “My goodness, when in the U.S., they’ll file charges against a Mexican just for being a Mexican, just for looking for work, for being an immigrant, and they won’t even do anything even when the authorities mistreat them…” But there are other voices, too: one denouncing a journalist for “hate and racism against the Americans,” and another insisting that if Tahmooressi “is in treatment (for post-traumatic stress disorder), the just thing is to allow him to return to his country, because we don’t have any reason to destroy a 25-year-old boy.”
And there is reason to think Tahmooressi could still win the case. His American lawyer says:
Andrew had no intention of entering Mexico with firearms, and there is proof. The video evidence taken by Mexican customs officials at the border, which was entered into evidence at the hearing in Tijuana Federal Court on September 9, confirms Andrew’s version of the facts and impeaches the testimony of customs officers who previously testified under oath.
It is clear that Andrew received the green light to enter Mexico without being stopped, and that he was the one who decided to contact a customs officer in an effort to find a way to turn around. Therefore, he lacked the necessary criminal intent to commit the crimes alleged.
A throwaway line in El Diario gives me even more hope. Reporting on those same tapes, the paper writes that “the Mexican federal authorities had resisted turning over the video to the judge.”
Those authorities have touted the fact that Tahmooressi checked into a Mexican hotel earlier on the day he was arrested as proof that he was intending to re-enter Mexico with his truck. The hotel receipt was leaked to a Tijuana newsmagazine, which broke the story June 2. But it was Tahmooressi himself who first mentioned — in a May 29 phone interview with Greta Van Susteren — that he had done so, “because I thought to stay the night,” or more likely, visited for a romantic encounter. That makes a hotel key crucial evidence. If he still had one, it would be a clear sign he meant to return. Authorities haven’t mentioned any key, though, and they’ve been leaking to Zeta Tijuana for months.
There’s one last detail that might solve everything. Tahmooressi’s Mexican lawyer, Fernando Benitez, says that border officials never got a genuine warrant before searching his truck. Apparently, they had a stack of blank warrants, pre-signed and pre-dated by an administrator. That might be enough.
If not, I’m holding out hope that President Obama’s apparent reluctance to take up Tahmooressi’s cause is really a sign of atypical savvy. Direct confrontation in this sort of thing tends to backfire; public intervention would make it impossible for Mexican authorities to save face and maintain the façade of sovereignty. But we can hope that, behind the scenes, Obama is sending a quiet but unmistakable message that there will be consequences if Mexican authorities try to make an example of a U.S. veteran who harmed nobody.
It’s hard to maintain hope, though, and not just because it’s difficult to picture Obama getting tough with a foreign leader. It’s because leftists and old law professors like Obama are often the last to see that the legal technicalities of guilt or innocence can have little to do with justice. The rest of don’t much care if Tahmooressi broke the law for the simple reason that he didn’t hurt anyone. The real crimes in this world, the ones our consciences are built to feel, cause harm. They have victims. But our governments have created a vast set of artificial crimes, involving no victims, yet punishable by prison, for no better reason than to coerce certain behavior.
The Democrats’ utopia has no guns, which is why states like New Jersey have draconian gun control laws that nearly match Mexico’s. What moral authority does Obama have to press for this marine’s release, when New Jersey is doing the same thing to Shaneen Allen, the Pennsylvania mother arrested for crossing state lines with a licensed handgun? That case, at least, has generated outrage across the spectrum, although we’re still not ready to think the problem of victimless crimes through to its logical conclusion. It ought to demonstrate something, however, that Americans of all political convictions, when they really stop to consider it, are horrified by the thought of somebody spending years in prison just for crossing an imaginary line while armed.