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Why Is a US Marine in a Mexican Jail? The Case of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi

Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, a US marine and Afghanistan war veteran, has been held in a Mexican prison for more than a month. He said he accidentally crossed the border on March 31 with three personal firearms. Mexican authorities jailed him on weapons charges. The case has drawn attention from lawmakers in the US, as Tahmooressi’s fate hangs in the balance.

Here’s a closer look at Tahmooressi’s case:

Who is Andrew Tahmooressi?

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Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi is a 25-year-old US Marine reservist. He served four years in the Marines and did two tours in Afghanistan before finishing active duty in 2012. He said he was honorably discharged in November 2012, according to the Associated Press.

His mother, Jill Tahmooressi, who is from Weston, Fla., said he had recently moved to San Diego to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Why is he in prison?

Tahmooressi is being held at La Mesa State Penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico for allegedly trying to bring weapons over the US-Mexico border. He faces federal weapons charges, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune:

The charges include possession of two firearms meant for exclusive use of the Mexican military; bail is not permitted. If convicted, he faces six to 21 years in a Mexican prison, said his Tijuana attorneys.

Tahmooressi had three weapons, all registered in the US, including a .45 caliber pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun, and an AR-15 rifle.

Tahmooressi attempted to escape after he was taken into custody, the AP reported:

After he was jailed, Tahmooressi tried to escape by climbing over a gate and heading up onto a roof, and then onto another one. He gave up when a guard opened fire, but the incident earned him the nickname "Spider-Man."

He later grabbed a light bulb and stabbed himself in the neck. He was taken to the hospital and given stitches.

Why was he going to Mexico?

Tahmooressi said he was on his way to meet friends for dinner in San Ysidro on March 31 when he accidently ended up at a border crossing point. He had been in San Diego for two weeks after leaving Dayton Beach, Fla. and driving across the country with everything he owned, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported:

"I was going to call them after I drove off the exit, but I never got off the exit, I blew right past it," he said. "I wasn't paying attention, thinking I had way farther to go. I ended up in Mexico with no way to turn around."

Tahmooressi said he never intended to leave the country and mistakenly ended up at the border crossing point. San Ysidro is a border town in San Diego County that is a few miles north of Mexico.

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune:

At Tijuana's El Chaparral Port of Entry, he tried to stop at the automatic crossing gates, but was waved through, and then guided to an inspection area. "They say, 'What have you got back there?' I said, 'A whole lot of stuff and three guns.' I said, 'I didn't even mean to be in Mexico.'"

Mexican authorities found the three guns and Tahmooressi was jailed.

Has something like this happened before?

Yes, there have been several cases of people jailed after accidentally crossing into Mexico. Tahmooressi’s case is not an isolated instance of this, CNN reports:

It is difficult for the U.S. State Department to quantify how many arrests are due to accidental crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, a spokeswoman told CNN, but Andrew Tahmooressi's case is not all that unique.

According to the AP:

In 2008, an active-duty Army soldier was jailed in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, for driving into Mexico with guns, knives and ammunition. Former Army Spc. Richard R. Medina Torres also said he was lost and missed the last U.S. exit. He spent a little over a month in jail before being released.

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune:

In 1999, a Camp Pendleton Marine was detained for two weeks in Tijuana after driving into the country with firearms. The Marine claimed he did so by mistake, and a federal judge ordered his release after the Mexican Attorney General asked that all charges be dropped.

According to a State Department warning, dozens of US citizens are arrested each month for “unintentionally violating Mexico’s strict weapons laws.” The warning also said, “claiming not to know about the law will not get you leniency from a police officer or the judicial system.”

Lawyers for Tahmooressi told The San Diego Union-Tribune that Mexico’s federal code allows for the absence of intent to be used as an exception to the penalty, and Tahmooressi did not intend to possess weapons there.

Is the US government doing anything to help?

Paul and Jill Tahmooressi stand outside the Mexican Consulate in Miami, Monday, May 5, 2014, protesting the arrest of their son in Mexico. Andrew Tahmooressi, a Marine veteran who was arrested and jailed in Mexico on weapons charges for allegedly bringing guns across the border, says he never intended to leave the country but missed an exit when heading to meet friends in a border town. He told the newspaper that Mexican authorities found three guns inside the truck he had recently driven across the country to make a new start in San Diego. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Paul and Jill Tahmooressi outside the Mexican Consulate in Miami on May 5.AP

Several US lawmakers have petitioned for Tahmooressi’s release. US Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and Marine veteran, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on May 2 asking for assistance in the case.

According to NBC San Diego, Hunter wrote in his letter that “Andrew is neither a criminal nor a weapons trafficker, and his incarceration is an extraordinarily unfortunate occurrence.”

Click here to read Congressman Hunter’s letter to Kerry

The State Department has said it is aware of a US citizen being arrested in Mexico, but do not comment on such cases involving private individuals without their permission, the AP reports.

According to CNN, Hunter also wrote a bipartisan congressional letter to Mexico’s attorney general on May 8:

"Mexico's Attorney General is in a position to deal with Andrew's case and ensure its quick resolution ... it is necessary that the AG intervene and expedite proceedings at the very least. And so far there's been no validation from Mexico that Andrew didn't make a directional mistake at the border."

Since his arrest, Tahmooressi’s parents and supporters have worked to bring attention to the case, even protesting outside the Mexican Consulate in Miami. There is also a Facebook page and WhiteHouse.gov petition.

What is next with the case?

According to Voxxi.com, there will be a hearing on May 28, where Mexican border officials will give a statement to the judge handling Tahmooressi’s case.

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