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U.S. Marine Jailed in Mexico Sustained by Faith in Christ

U.S. Marine Jailed in Mexico Sustained by Faith in Christ AP Photo J Pat Carter

AP Photo/J Pat Carter

Brian Fraga - published on 06/04/14

Andrew Tahmooressi reads the Gospel and the psalms while incarcerated.

Jill Tahmooressi was leaving a July 4 church service in 2008 when her teenage son, Andrew, told her something remarkable.

"He told me, ‘God just nudged me. He told me to join the military,’" Jill Tahmooressi said.

Andrew Tahmooressi motivated young man who by age 19 already had a private pilot’s license and worked as an Alaskan commercial fisherman, went on to enlist as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps. He served two combat tours as a machine gunner in Afghanistan, where he was given a meritorious battlefield promotion to sergeant.

"He was definitely a serious Marine who served honorably," Jill Tahmooressi said. "Andrew was always a highly committed and very generous young man whose faith in God was very important to him."

Andrew Tahmooressi, 25, who was raised Catholic, now relies on his faith in Jesus Christ while he is held in a Mexican prison. He is awaiting the outcome of a criminal case where he was arrested for crossing the border with three legally-registered firearms in the back of his pickup truck.

Tahmooressi said he took a wrong turn when he ended up at the Mexican port of entry near Tijuana on March 31. He called 911 to report he had gotten lost and to ask for help, but Mexican authorities immediately arrested him.

"His rights were violated in so many ways from the very beginning," Jill Tahmooressi said.

According to his family and friends, Tahmooressi was beaten, stripped naked and threatened with death while in Mexican custody. He was in such fear that he tried escaping from the first prison where he was incarcerated.

"Coming from a combat veteran, for him to say that he had never been so scared in his entire life, and knowing the things that have scared us before, to hear him say that was just unbelievable," said Mark Podlaski, a former Marine who served with Tahmooressi in Afghanistan.

Tahmooressi’s Christian faith is what has sustained him during his ordeal.

"He’s maintained his belief in Christ, which is what keeps him being able to go through the day without going into a sheer panic," Jill Tahmooressi recently told Aleteia from her South Florida home.

Jill Tahmooressi said her son has a Bible and a copy of Pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life inside his cell at the El Hongo penitentiary in Baja California. He likes to pray over Psalm 91 and Ephesians 6, where St. Paul exhorts the faithful to be strong in the Lord and to put on the full armor of God.

"We’re prayerful that this journey is all for some higher purpose, for some higher calling," Jill Tahmooressi said. "We’ve been definitely battling the devil from the moment Andrew was first questioned by a customs agent."

Pastor Luis Benito, a pentecostal preacher in Tijuana, visits Andrew Tahmooressi two to three times a week to pray with him.

"He loves the psalms," Pastor Benito said. "He has a very strong and positive relationship with the Lord."

Tahmooressi committed his life to Christ "many years ago," said Bart Santos, a private investigator who is a member of the same Brazilian nondenominational church, Projeto Vida Nova, that Tahmooressi began attending shortly after he moved to San Diego earlier this year.

"He’s a godly man, very calm and easy-going, not the kind of person who would ever consider doing a crime," said Santos, who has also been investigating Tahmooressi’s gun arrest. Santos told Aleteia that he has worked about 125 hours on the case.

"This is essentially a case about a wrong turn," Santos said.

Earlier this year, Andrew Tahmooressi moved to California to receive treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. He began exhibiting symptoms shortly after he finished four years of active duty in 2012. A Marine Corps friend in San Diego helped Tahmooressi sign up for a treatment program there administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We had pleaded with him to get help," Jill Tahmooressi said.

In San Diego, Andrew participated in a program orientation on March 20. His mother said he attended a group therapy session on March 31, and that he then went to Tijuana to get a "good meal and check out the sights."

Andrew parked his pickup truck nearby and walked across the border into Mexico. Later that day, he returned to his vehicle to go to dinner in San Ysidro, a district in the south of San Diego.

Because of construction that has been ongoing since 2009, Santos said the highways around the border crossing are "confusing." Santos said the signage in the area is "inadequate," and added that the final exits before the border have been moved. He said Tahmooressi, when leaving the parking lot, took what seemed to be a "reasonable turn" but ended up back at the Mexican port of entry.

"The turn there is very counter-intuitive, and when you take it, there is no opportunity to tun around or stop," Santos said. "The configuration is ridiculous. He made a very natural mistake."

Tahmooressi tried explaining his predicament to Mexican customs agents, but his mother said the authorities ordered him to move to checkpoints further south into Mexico. He was then arrested after the Mexican military found three firearms—a .45-caliber handgun, a shotgun and an AR-15—and ammunition inside his vehicle. The guns are legally registered to Tahmooressi in the United States, but Mexico prohibits any firearms or ammunition from crossing into the country.

If convicted, Tahmooressi could be looking at a maximum 21-year prison sentence in Mexico, Santos said.

Tahmooressi’s case has generated a media firestorm. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition asking President Barack Obama to demand his release. Last month, more than 20 United States congressmen and senators sent a letter requesting Mexico’s Attorney General to dismiss the charges.

"We fully respect Mexico’s rights to enforce its laws, but we believe Andrew is not a criminal or a weapons trafficker," the lawmakers wrote in their May 8 letter.

The incident would seem to be a straightforward case of accidental entry, but issues with Tahmooressi’s first defense lawyer complicated the court proceedings.

Jill Tahmooressi said that Andrew’s lawyer, Alejandro Osuna of Tijuana, told her son to lie to a judge by saying that he had never previously been to Mexico. She said her son protested his lawyer’s strategy during a court hearing.

"The lawyer told (Andrew) that it wouldn’t look good if he said he had been to Mexico before," Jill Tahmooressi said. "The lawyer then gave me this whole song and dance about the Mexican legal system being different, and how I had to trust him. A week or two later, he again instructed me in no uncertain terms to get my boy in line and to make sure he followed the script."

Santos said he told Osuna that the lying was "unnecessary" and that it made a "huge mess" of the legal proceedings.

"It was completely foolhardy to do this," Santos said.

Jill Tahmooressi said she selected Osuna from an online list of attorneys posted by the U.S. consulate in Tijuana. On May 28, she fired Osuna and retained a public defender. Andrew is awaiting his next court hearing.

In an e-mail message to Aleteia, Osuna declined to comment on Jill Tahmooressi’s statement that he had told her son to lie. He said the fact that Andrew Tahmooressi had previous entries into Mexico was "irrelevant to prove the no-intent defense."

"Our work has been to advise Sgt. Tahmooressi of the crime he is accused of, about his right not to self-incriminate himself, and the strategy we were following to get him out, which was focused on proving that he had no intent to cross," Osuna said.

Osuna added that Andrew Tahmooressi’s 911 call was a "helpful piece of evidence," but added that he was looking at "other facts" that included Tahmooressi’s account of his experience at the Mexican Customs facility and the interrogation he went through by customs agents. Osuna also said he was unable to speak with Tahmooressi for almost three weeks because of Tahmooressi’s "self-inflicted neck wound" and attempted escape from the La Mesa Prison.

"When the prison authorities felt he was no longer a risk to others and himself, then we had some limited access to him, but surrounded by five prison guards," Osuna said. "Clearly, not the best conditions to have a candid interview with a client."

At La Mesa, where he was held for almost five weeks, Tahmooressi was shackled in a manner that his arms were held behind his head and his legs twisted to a point that he lost circulation. According to what he also told his mother and Marine Corps veterans, the Mexican prison guards stripped him naked, punched him in the jaw and hit him in the abdominal area, which caused him to gasp for breath.

"I would say that’s a form of torture," Jill Tahmooressi said.

Podlaski said Andrew Tahmooressi told him during a recent phone conversation that the guards beat him in front of their colleagues.

"The most frustrating thing he said was that he felt helpless, being chained up and having these puny guys coming in, showing off to their friends by beating him," Podlaski said. "This is worse than a POW camp because at least there the enemy is trying to gain information. These people were just beating him for pure satisfaction. It’s sick. If this happened to any other American, this would be bogus."

Jill Tahmooressi said her son tried escaping La Mesa because of the alleged abuse and death threats that he had received from Mexican gang members in the prison.

"He called me that night. He thought he was going to die," Tahmooressi said. "I prayed that God would be with him and protect him."

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman told reporters on May 30 that Secretary of State John Kerry discussed Tahmooressi’s case with Mexican officials when he was in that country the prior week. The spokeswoman said the possibility of a veteran being abused in a Mexican prison was "an issue of huge concern," and added that United States consular officers have attended his court hearings and visited him in prison.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, Calif., a Marine Corps veteran who has been among the most vocal members of Congress in Tahmooressi’s case, said the situation "underscores the immediate need for a new form of legal treatment by U.S. officials when incursions occur" by Mexican officials.

"Perhaps Mexico should be reminded of the hundreds of military and law enforcement incursions at the border, where officials and personnel have entered the U.S. without permission and most always carrying weapons," Hunter said.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C. did not return a message seeking comment.

In their May 8 letter to Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, Duncan and other federal lawmakers said Tahmooressi was "a Marine Corps veteran who served his country honorably."

Mark Podlaski, who served in the same platoon with Tahmooressi in the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, described his former roommate as a "selfless, humble and confident" Marine who always "led by example."

"His uniform was always squared away. He set the standard for excellence," Podlaski said. "He always led from the front. He would never ask another Marine to do something if he wasn’t going to do it himself. He was huge on teamwork, on and off the battlefield."

Long before his current situation, Podlaski said Tahmooressi was "constantly preaching" to him to get "right with God." On his chest, Podlaski said Tahmooressi has a large tattoo of Christ and three crosses.

"He’s always had a great relationship with God," Podlaski said. "He always made me want to be a better person in that aspect, that’s for sure. When you hear him talking in these interviews, he sounds so calm and collected. He’s always been like that because he knows God has a plan for him."

Benito, the Pentecostal pastor who visits Tahmooressi in jail, said the former Marine "has a strong discipline and strong faith" in Christ.

"Everything he’s doing now, he’s doing for Jesus," Benito said.

In their telephone conversations, Jill Tahmooressi said she reminds her son that his suffering is forging a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.

"He utterly feels that this experience has not distanced himself from God," said Jill Tahmooressi, who attends Catholic and Protestant services. She said her own faith is also the "only thing" that keeps her going.

"As ugly and as dark as this situation has been, we always know that we’re victorious in Christ," Jill Tahmooressi said. " We’re not going to let the devil incapacitate us through fear."

Brian Fragais a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.

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