Ion Perdicaris, a Greek-American, was kidnapped in 1904 in Tangier by Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli and held for $70,000 ransom. Outraged, President Theodore Roosevelt sent warships and Marines to Morocco, along with a message: “This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” Perdicaris was freed.
Today, not one, but hundreds of Americans rot in Mexican jails. The State Department stopped reporting numbers years ago, but in 1998 CNN reported 400 U.S. citizens were imprisoned in Mexico, more than in any other nation. The Obama administration response is to create “Beyond Merida,” an aid program with appropriations that totaled $1.3 billion by 2010. In exchange for this ransom, how many Americans held without trial have been freed? None.
Consider the dangers if you are foolish enough to visit Mexico.
You can be shot by a drug cartel mobster. Mexico admits to 27,199 murders in 2011. That’s 24 killings per 100,000 residents, a murder rate 600% higher than America’s.
You can be kidnapped. The State Department estimated there were 50,000 kidnappings in Mexico in 2008, second only to Venezuela.
You can be robbed. Anywhere. In February, 22 Carnival Cruise Lines passengers went ashore in beautiful, safe Puerto Vallarta. Their valuables and passports were taken at gunpoint.
But the greatest danger to an American tourist or visiting businessman is the corrupt Mexican criminal justice system. It is one thing to commit a crime, and a very different thing to be falsely arrested and sent to a Mexican prison, and then be abandoned there by Washington. That happened to a U.S. Marine combat veteran and two Florida businessmen. They are all still in jail.
On August 23, Marine veteran Jon Hammar was driving to a holiday in Costa Rica. He showed his great-grandfather’s shotgun to the U.S. Customs agent at the Mexican border and was told all he had to do was complete a form for Mexican customs. Hammar showed the shotgun and document to the Mexican border officer and was promptly arrested. Photographs of Hammar, chained to a bed, have surfaced on the Web. Being marooned for four months in a rat-infested Mexican prison is a Christmas nightmare.
Even worse is being stuck in a Mexican prison for 14 months.
On October 25, 2011, Florida businessman and yacht-owner Steeven Knight and his boat captain, Walter Stephens, were in Mexico completing the sale of his boat to a Mexican. They already had the down-payment, properly deposited in an American bank after proper U.S. Treasury documents had been filed. Then they went to Mexico, received the balance of $950,000 in cash, completed banking and customs documentation, and prepared to go home. They were arrested at the airport, and the money and yacht were confiscated. Charged with money-laundering, the two businessmen have been in jail for 14 months awaiting trial and suffering the horrors of a Mexican prison: undrinkable water, inedible food, rats and vermin, exposure to weather, endless danger, and extortion from criminals and officials.
There are two reasons this happens. First, the corrupt Mexican judicial system permits a prosecutor to arrest anyone, and then to require the prisoner to prove he is not guilty. There is no “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” There is no trial by jury. In fact, there is no trial at all. A judge makes decisions behind closed doors, when and if he is ready. Meanwhile, fixers promise to “make it go away” if money is paid. Being a Mexican prosecutor must be a lucrative profession.
The second reason Americans are tortured and die in Mexican jails is the absolute silence of the White House, State Department, and Congress. The exception is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who promised to help Marine Jon Hammar (one hopes she will also remember her fellow Floridians Steeve Knight and Walter Stephens). There are no outraged statesmen in the Obama administration.
Since the White House and State Department refuse to protect Americans abroad, what is to be done? Let’s talk money. Instead of crafting aid programs for the country with the world’s 14th-largest GDP, we should be putting economic pressure on Mexico to release innocent Americans from its slammers.
The most sensitive pressure point is remittances by immigrant workers. In 2009, Mexican workers in the U.S. sent home $21.2 billion (a 2010 Pew study showed 57% of those immigrant workers are illegal aliens). The U.S. Post Office wire service to Mexico, Dinero Seguro, allows transfers of up to $2,000 per day. The sender must be a documented worker. So, to put the squeeze on 57% of an untaxed $21.2 billion, Mexico’s second-biggest source of revenue, Congress can require the Post Office to see real documentation, not just phony Matricula Consular cards handed out to illegal aliens by Mexican consulates.
But instead of hoping Congress might do the right thing, we can all poke Mexico’s second pressure point: tourism. Mexico expects over 20 million American tourists in 2013. So help Marine Jon Hammar and Steeve Knight and don’t be a tourist. Why risk dying in a Mexican prison for some tequila and a tan?
Stay out of Mexico until another Teddy Roosevelt is president.
Chet Nagle is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former Pentagon official, and author of “Iran Covenant.”