Sgt. Tahmooressi Remains Imprisoned in Mexico Three Weeks after the USHR Subcommittee Hearing. What Went Wrong?
On October 1, 2014, a US House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearing was held with regard to US Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi,[i] who was arrested in March 2014 after crossing into the Mexico with firearms in his possession. Although the weapons were legally registered to him according to US law, bringing them into Mexico was in violation of Mexican law.
During the hearing, optimism was expressed that Sgt. Tahmooressi would soon be released. As of October 21, 2014, he remains imprisoned. The hearing did not result in his release, and observers are questioning why. The reasons for this are multiple and go beyond strategic communication, but nonetheless, an important error of the hearing was an over-emphasis upon talking points that were compelling to a US audience, but would not be compelling to the Mexican authorities that have imprisoned Tahmooressi since March 2014. Talking points that would have caught the attention of Mexican authorities were not sufficiently emphasized.
The Relevance of Crafting Communications for Mexican Authorities versus US Authorities
The case has drawn the attention of Americans and Mexicans for very different reasons. Most US observers would have found most of the talking points moving, and it is likely that US observers overestimate the extent to which Mexican authorities share their personal reactions. Understanding why some of the talking points were of minimal interest to Mexican authorities begins with understanding the underlying reasons for Tahmooressi’s imprisonment from the perspective of Mexican power brokers.
Understanding The Symbolic Value of US Marine Sgt. Tahmooressi to Mexico’s Authorities
The most significant geopolitical challenge facing Mexico’s authorities remains the cartel war that has raged within that nation since 2006. The emergence of transnational criminal organizations (i.e., cartels) that rival or surpass the power of elected state authorities erodes the confidence of Mexico’s public in them, as well as in the electoral processes through which they supposedly ascend into power. Cartel influence also reflects the pervasive corruption that characterizes Mexico’s political culture.
Mexicans are aware their leaders are corrupt. They expect corruption and ineptitude from them. Mexicans are outraged over the violence and degeneracy unleashed by the cartel war, and the manner in which it continually erodes Mexico’s public life. Yet Mexicans prefer to remain fiercely proud of their nation and optimistic about its fundamental character. This results in a dynamic whereby the Mexican public is exceptionally receptive to their leadership’s efforts to scapegoat external agents with regard to the cartel war’s causes, and the reasons it has sustained its intensity to the present.
Mexico’s authorities understand the sentiments of their public very well, and know that certain strategic communication strategies yield reliable results in terms of managing the damaged public trust. Toward that end, there is no scapegoat more valuable to Mexico’s authorities than the US, including (but not limited to) its leadership, public, and culture. Mexicans prefer to see the cartel war in their midst as an exported proxy war for the US war against its own drug culture, and more specifically, the drug appetites of millions of Americans who feel it is their inalienable right to have drugs as part and parcel of their pursuit of happiness. Furthermore, Mexicans tend to believe most of the military grade weaponry used by cartels comes from the US and its poorly regulated gun culture. These suspicions are buttressed by vague but powerful sentiments of resentment and inferiority with regard to US economic and military power. The US-Mexico border is where it is because the US successfully competed against Mexico for a great deal of territory. Within Mexico’s public consciousness, the border remains a painful reminder of that defeat.
Sgt. Tahmooressi is being held by Mexico’s authorities because he is an exceptionally compelling symbol to Mexico’s public. Being a US Marine, he would seem to personify the US military. Being a gun owner, Mexicans see US gun culture reflected in him. Crossing into Mexico with his guns, he becomes more symbolic of the folk-theorized American whose guns have armed all parties within the cartel war. The act of arresting a gun-running US Marine at the border is immediately compelling to a Mexican audience not only because it is an act of control over that border (and therefore, an act of defiance against the US victory and vitality it represents), but also because it seems to strike at so many of the key issues through which Mexicans prefer to understand the cartel war. Mexicans really don’t want to consider that he might not be a gun runner, don’t want to hear about his humanity, and don’t care about what his fellow US soldiers thought of his service in Afghanistan (a conflict that has nothing to do with Mexico). As long as Tahmooressi’s persona is managed symbolically, his imprisonment will remain compelling to the audience of Mexico’s public. By retaining him against the wishes of US authorities, Mexico’s authorities appear all the more defiant against what Mexico’s public perceives as the underlying causes of Mexico’s cartel war, which are largely attributed to the US.
Subcommittee Hearing Talking points of little or no relevance to Mexico’s authorities
Of the talking points emphasized most during the Tahmooressi hearing, the following would have been compelling for a US audience, but not for Mexico’s authorities:
The Irony of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl
Earlier in 2014, the White House may have broken federal laws in facilitating the release of five suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the Taliban in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been accused by others in the US military of being captured after intentionally abandoning his post. It was observed that despite Tahmooressi’s honorable service in Afghanistan, similar measures were not being taken to secure his release.
Testimony pointed to the fact that the US military is watching, as is the US public. At issue is whether the US still respects its military, and that Tahmooressi’s treatment does not represent how the US should treat Americans who have helped their nation through honorable service. It was argued that America should stand up for its soldiers and marines.
But Mexico has no direct conflict against the Taliban. Mexico’s army does not participate in foreign conflicts, and is not involved in Afghanistan. Mexico’s authorities don’t care whether his service was honorable, whether Bergdahl was dishonorable, or whether the White House should have facilitated Bergdahl’s release. Loss of US government credibility in the eyes of US military personnel is even less a concern for Mexico’s leadership.
The Diagnosis of PTSD and the Need for Specialized Psychiatric Care Mexico Cannot Provide
Perhaps the most repeated talking point was that Sgt. Tahmooressi was diagnosed with PTSD prior to his imprisonment in Mexico, and that those symptoms resulted directly from experiences as a warfighter in Afghanistan.
It was argued that bringing Tahmooressi home for treatment of PTSD would be in the interest of justice. The point was also raised that Tahmooressi’s imprisonment experience in Mexico was worse than his warfare experiences in Afghanistan and would probably result in more severe PTSD.
While compelling to a US audience, these arguments mean little to Mexican authorities. They are only tangentially related to what Mexico’s public considers as justice for someone who is perceived as a gun-runner. Additionally, although Mexicans can appreciate how warfare can leave a soldier with psychological damage, psychiatric illness is understood differently within Mexican society. It remains more stigmatized, yet less differentiated from dominant conceptions of criminality, in comparison to thought trends in the US. Psychiatric illness can and often does precipitate the loss of freedoms, and sometimes even leads to legal processes resulting in the loss of property, in modern day Mexico. Many of Mexico’s most depraved imprisoned criminals are believed to have psychiatric problems. Mexico faces more immediate problems than the challenge of sorting out its prison population into those who are psychologically damaged versus those who are psychologically normal. A common sentiment among Mexicans is that the gringo Marine with PTSD should have thought about whether he wanted treatment for his illness in the US before attempting to smuggle weapons into Mexico.
Challenging President Obama to Stop Playing Golf, Pick up the Phone, and Bring Tahmooressi Home
The talking point least likely to produce a desired result in Tahmooressi’s favor were the efforts to pressure President Obama to do something – such as picking up his phone and making a call – to facilitate his release. Another observation was made that it set a low bar to expect a US president to merely make a phone call, and that Obama should do whatever it takes to bring the Marine home. The phone references alluded to Obama’s now infamous vow to circumvent political opposition in US congress by using his phone and pen. While the president certainly could do a great deal with those tools to incentivize Mexico to release Tahmooressi, Obama is not likely to spend political capital for the benefit of the US military, with which he is perpetually at odds. President Obama has been criticized in some US popular media for playing golf while the nation struggles with serious problems, and this criticism also arose during the hearing with the sarcastic suggestion that he should play some rounds of golf on Mexico’s courses for a Marine who has been left behind. While these criticisms may have merit, the fact remains that none of it places any real pressure on President Obama to do more than he already has (which critics suspect isn’t very much) in facilitating Tahmooressi’s release.
The Human Interest Angle
A significant amount of the testimony was devoted to the human interest angle – that is, managing Tahmooressi’s persona in a fashion that emphasized not only his status as an honorable US veteran, but also a beloved son who is enduring unspeakable horrors at the hands of Mexican authorities, and prisoners who threatened to rape and murder him. Sgt. Tahmooressi’s mother gave very moving testimony in which she reconciled the image of a good son, an honorable US Marine, and a tormented and unjustly imprisoned captive, by reading a series of quotations from her son, each from a different period of his life. His mother claimed that he had no evil intentions and did not willfully break Mexican law when he made a wrong turn into Mexico with weapons in his car, and that the sentiment was echoed by a Mexican ambassador. She also described her frustration dealing with her son’s isolation, how she was not allowed to sit in Mexico’s legal hearings, and how her son’s previous attorney attempted to extort them.
While outrageous to a US audience, none of this is very noteworthy to a Mexican audience who is all too familiar with the inefficient, opaque, and shamelessly corrupt legal system of their nation, which in some ways remains similar to the system used by the Spanish at the time of the Inquisition. Mexicans already know how terrible their prisons are, and they will weigh her words knowing that a loving mother will say whatever it takes – including misrepresenting her son, or even lying – to bring about his release. While admirable on a basic human level, this talking point would not compel Mexico’s public to desire his release.
Talking Points that were directly related to the interests of Mexico’s authorities
The following Subcommittee Hearing talking points were not only compelling to a US audience, they also touched upon issues that are more important for Mexico’s authorities. They should have been emphasized more prominently during the hearing:
The Implausibility of Tahmooressi as a Weapons-Smuggler
As previously discussed, much of the value of Tahmooressi to Mexican leadership depends upon the plausibility of him being guilty of smuggling weapons into Mexico for the purpose of arming cartels.
During the hearing, the sarcastic observation was made that if Tahmooressi was a gun-runner, he was terrible at it, since he was bringing guns registered in his name, and he volunteered the information they were in his possession.
If Mexico’s public were to perceive Tahmooressi as a scapegoat being framed by Mexico’s authorities to divert attention from their own ineptitude and corruption, instead of perceiving him as a bona-fide criminal, it would incentivize the authorities to release him before the local (i.e., Mexican) PR blowback turns against them.
Damaged US-Mexico Political and Economic Relations
Regardless of what Mexican authorities think of Sgt. Tahmooressi, they know that Mexico’s most important political relationship is the one it shares with the US. Mexico cannot compare to the US in economic or military might. It depends heavily upon millions of its citizens illegally entering into the US, obtaining employment, and sending money back into Mexico. Implicitly, it depends upon the US to ignore the unemployment problems of its own populace, and neglect to enforce its own immigration and labor laws to allow the widespread illegal employment to continue.
While the US certainly trades a great deal with Mexico, the relationship is asymmetrical. Nonetheless, Mexicans like to envision what they feel US-Mexico relations ought to be in terms of a partnership, or perhaps even a friendship.
Therefore, it catches the attention of Mexico’s leadership when persons testify at the USHR subcommittee hearing that The US’ commercial and diplomatic relationship with Mexico is based on cooperation, but that Mexico has not lived up to its end of the deal. The observation was made that Mexicans illegally violate the US border regularly, and Mexico’s government asks for ‘compassion’ and ‘amnesty’ from US authorities in allowing them to remain within the US…. but that compassion goes both ways.
The anger which was expressed by some of the Americans will also be noted. For example, while discussing the relationship between the US and Mexico, the facetious question was posed: With friends like Mexico, who needs enemies? The description of Mexico’s government as not being so great also would have been very unpleasant, but prominently noticed, by Mexican leadership who place a premium on international prestige and respect.
The Possibility of Mexico Losing US Foreign Aid
Among the most feared of possible consequences from deteriorating US-Mexico relations is the loss of funding. During the hearing, the topic arose regarding the US giving 300 million dollars of foreign aid every year. The sight of Americans questioning exactly what that money is buying is implicitly threatening to Mexican authorities who have come to expect these subsidies as a given.
The Allusion of Invasion
During his testimony, Lieutenant Commander Montel Williams tactfully alluded to the fact that some within the US support the prospect of invading Mexico to remove Tahmooressi by force when he declared that he was not going to call for that measure. To be sure, the prospect of forceful US extraction of Tahmooressi from Mexican imprisonment would have been judged by Mexican authorities as unlikely. Nonetheless, the allusion is very unpalatable to Mexican sensibilities, as it highlights Mexico’s geopolitical inferiority, as well as the likelihood that a hostile exchange between the US and Mexico would have long-lasting implications that would not work out in Mexico’s favor.
A Possible Face-Saving Alternative for Mexico: Making a Humanitarian Gesture by Releasing Tahmooressi for PTSD Treatment
During the hearing, it was discussed that Mexico’s attorney general has authority to dismiss the case when he has expert testimony documenting PTSD, and that a Mexican psychologist has already submitted a report affirming this diagnosis. Releasing him could therefore be seen as a humanitarian gesture by Mexico – without that nation’s leadership losing face by appearing to cave under political pressure from the US.
As previously explained, the PTSD diagnosis is of little concern to Mexican authorities or the Mexican public. However, Mexico’s public generally appreciates humanitarianism, and his release could be facilitated if framed as a humanitarian gesture – a gift, really – insofar as it is being done contrary to Mexican demands for justice in the form of his imprisonment, and despite US perceptions that justice would seem to demand the release.
A challenging aspect of this strategy is to associate the PTSD and humanitarianism angles in a way that makes it convincing to Mexico’s leadership that it would be preferable to releasing him under greater political duress from the US, and yet, without being so heavy handed that it would appear to be a veiled threat from the US. However, the PTSD/humanitarianism angle will not be seriously considered until other implicit threats become reconsidered as more credible, including the prospects of damaged political/economic relations, and the loss of foreign aid from the US.
Although the Tahmooressi hearing was compelling to a US audience, it emphasized several issues that were not interpreted as important for the Mexican leadership figures responsible for his continued imprisonment. Messages aimed at US leadership not already clamoring for Tahmooressi’s release fell upon an unreceptive audience, particularly in the case of President Obama. In fact, US leadership in general has made it clear they will do little to free Tahmooressi. Tailoring communications to compel a US audience was a significant mistake in the planning of this hearing.
It wasn’t a total loss. They did touch upon some issues that would catch the attention of Mexico’s leadership, which certainly did monitor the hearings to gauge the determination of US leadership to press for Tahmooressi’s release. The hearing provided some food for thought, but concrete actions against Mexico appeared to be unlikely. In fact, the hearing served to advertise that some US politicians were outraged that US federal authorities were unwilling to do anything about his imprisonment. This observation may have resulted in Mexican leadership remaining satisfied with retaining Tahmooressi as a compelling symbol of its commitment against the “real” (i.e., US-born) causes of the cartel war.
If the subcommittee hearing had emphasized certain issues that were more relevant to the interests and worldviews of Mexico’s leadership, it might have produced a quicker release of Sgt. Tahmooressi.
The talking points that should have been minimized or omitted from future efforts include:
1 – The human interest angle
2 – PTSD as a reason to excuse or explain his possession of guns, and to justify his release
3- Credibility and respect issues between the US military, its public, and its leadership
4- The irony of swapping terrorists for Sgt. Bergdahl
5- Challenges for President Obama to do something about the situation
The talking points that should be centralized in further strategic communications with Mexico’s leadership in the effort to secure Tahmooressi’s release include:
6 – The implausibility of Tahmooressi being a gun-smuggler
7 – The observation that the imprisonment has already damaged US-Mexico political and economic relations
8 – The likelihood of Mexico losing hundreds of millions of dollars in US foreign assistance every year
9 – Tactful allusion of the US being willing and capable of rescuing a captured Marine against the will of the Mexican state (i.e., by force if necessary)
10 – The PTSD/humanitarian face-saving alternative as being preferable to the undesirable consequences above (items 6-9).