Wrong Turn, Guns In His Truck, Lands Veteran In Mexican Jail

A former U.S. Marine sergeant is in a Mexican prison just across the border from California. The reservist says he missed his freeway exit in San Diego and drove across the U.S.-Mexico border.

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A former U.S. Marine sergeant is sitting in a Mexican jail just across the border from California. He says he missed his freeway exit in San Diego, and unintentionally drove across the U.S.-Mexico border. The problem was he had guns in his truck.

As Amy Isackson reports, his case has led to protests along an already tense border region.

AMY ISACKSON, BYLINE: On the evening of March 31st, Andrew Tahmooressi says he and some friends had a hankering for good Mexican food. They thought they'd find some near the U.S.-Mexico border, so they got on the freeway and headed south.

ANDREW TAHMOORESSI: I was driving separate. But I never got off the exit.

ISACKSON: The exit Tahmooressi says he was looking for was the last U.S. exit, the last before entering Mexico. San Diego UT reporter Sandra Dibble was able to speak with Tahmooressi before his mother forbade interviews.

ANDREW TAHMOORESSI: I blew right past it. I was kind of zoned out in my head.

ISACKSON: Tahmooressi says by the time he realized what he'd done, there was no way back. A U-turn was impossible. The Mexican customs officer he tried to flag down before he crossed waved him forward.

ANDREW TAHMOORESSI: So I was like, OK, I'll listen to your orders.

ISACKSON: Tahmooressi says once in Mexico, he told officers he had three guns in his car. In fact, he had everything he owned in his car. A few weeks earlier, he'd driven from Florida to the Veterans Administration hospital near San Diego, to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Tahmooressi's guns are licensed in the U.S. Regardless, it's illegal to carry arms into Mexico. Tahmooressi was thrown into jail.

JILL TAHMOORESSI: He said, in these words: Mom, I'm not going to make it through the night.

ISACKSON: Jill Tahmooressi, Andrew's mom, says when he first called her, he was clearly beside himself. Andrew told her...

JILL TAHMOORESSI: Whatever you do, do not come down here to investigate. You will be killed if you come down here, Mom. Right then and there, I thought to myself, Lord Jesus, I've just lost my baby boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

ISACKSON: He was sent to Tijuana's La Mesa Prison. People locked up in the cell where Tahmooressi landed tried to scare him, told him that they would kill him. Tahmooressi tried to scale the prison walls to escape. That earned him the nickname Spider-Man.

The prison pastor - his name is Luis Benito Juarez - says Tahmooressi has since calmed down. They've spent two hours a day together for the last month. Juarez thinks Mexican authorities made a mistake by arresting Tahmooressi.

LUIS BENITO JUAREZ: (Through translator) Us Mexicans should have acted more honorably upon seeing that he acted in good faith. It's a matter of moving two cones to let him go back to the U.S.

ISACKSON: Tahmooressi's imprisonment has inflamed cross-border tensions. His supporters have picketed Mexican consulates in the U.S. A few shouted at President Barack Obama's motorcade during his recent visit to San Diego.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Free Tahmooressi. Free Sgt. Tahmooressi now!

ISACKSON: Monique Morales, who's a former Marine, like Tahmooressi, held up a homemade sign with his photo on it.

MONIQUE MORALES: It was an honest mistake. You know, I live two exits from the border, and I've almost made that mistake. The signs aren't clear down there, especially at night.

ISACKSON: That going into Mexico was an accident is exactly what Alejandro Osuna, Tahmooressi's attorney, plans to show.

ALEJANDRO OSUNA: In order to be found guilty in Mexico, you have to have had an intention to commit a crime. And in this case, he did not even intend to be in Mexico.

ISACKSON: Neither U.S. or Mexican officials will comment on the case. Nearly two dozen U.S. congressmen have asked Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene on Tahmooressi's behalf. Tahmooressi could spend months behind bars while his case wends its way through Mexico's legal system. If found guilty of carrying weapons, he faces at least 12 years in prison.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

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