Americans Are in Mexican Jails on Gun Charges
By RICK LYMAN
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- Johnny Manuel sat in the interview room at the
Readaptacion Social Para Adultas, a dusty and sun-bleached prison at the foot of the Sierra
de Juarez, telling his story in the bitter monotone of a man who has seen his nightmares grow bones.
"It's like you've
been swallowed up by a big monster," said Manuel, a slight man in a loose-fitting
hunting cap who drew hungrily on one menthol cigarette after another. "I made a bad, bad mistake.
Ruined my whole damn life, I guess."
Manuel said his
mistake was inadvertently crossing an international bridge while looking
for a parking
space -- with three guns belonging to his fiancee, a prison guard, in his car. He has been in this
Juarez prison for nearly eight months, barely cracking the five-year sentence he drew for arms
Manuel, a 49-year-old
butcher from Lake Charles, La., is one of 78 U.S. citizens who are in
Mexican jails after being arrested this year on arms charges. Seventy-two of them were arrested at
or near the border and most, U.S. officials say, were apparently guilty of simple blunders.
24, and William Patterson, 25, friends from Ohio who were on a rattlesnake
coyote hunting trip to West Texas, said they, too, found themselves on the Mexican side of the
border, with their hunting guns, before they could turn around.
48, was leading 15 members of his family in two rented vans from Birmingham,
to Oakland, Calif., when he said he made a wrong turn and ended up on a bridge he did not intend
to cross, with a shotgun and a World War II rifle. James Gray was taking his family camping in New
Mexico when he decided to visit Juarez for a Mexican dinner, not thinking about the 9-mm pistol in
his vehicle, he said.
In the most recent
case, five Louisiana men in their late teens and early 20s, including two
of the University of Southwestern Louisiana football team, were arrested at an international crossing
in Nuevo Laredo on Oct. 10 while on a South Texas hunting trip.
both sides of the border are debating the reasons -- from lenient gun laws
in Texas to
overzealousness by Mexican authorities -- but the arrests have caused enough concern that the issue
was raised in talks in June between the U.S. secretary of state and her Mexican counterpart.
In all, 135 Americans
have been arrested this year on firearms charges. Fifty-seven were released
bond, had their charges dropped or were convicted and sent back to the United States as part of a
prisoner-exchange program. The rest, like Manuel, sit in crowded Mexican jails and count the
And it is not
simply having guns. The same charges that apply to possession of a weapon
to possession of ammunition, and some U.S. citizens have been jailed for having anywhere from a
box of bullets to a handful of shotgun shells in the car. The charge depends to some degree on the
caliber of weapon involved. Anything more powerful than a .38-caliber gun is considered a military
The number of
Americans imprisoned on arms charges at the Mexican border has soared from
handful of cases last year to scores this year, State Department officials said, not because more
people have been arrested but because Mexican officials have been prosecuting more cases.
"There is not
a heck of a lot of difference in the number of arrests," said a State Department
who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"What is different
is the outcome of the cases," the official said. "Before, when someone
entered Mexico with a weapon, they were briefly detained and usually informally allowed to return to
the U.S. with the weapon seized. Now, in the same situation, they could end up in jail a long, long
and police officials deny this, and say they have no explanation for the
weapons prosecutions. "The policy in Mexico has not changed; it is the same," said Juan Manuel
Rodriguez Cid, administrator of Mexican customs for the crossings in and near El Paso, Texas. "We
don't know what the reason is for this increase."
James L. Ward,
U.S. consul general in Juarez, said he was not sure why more weapons
prosecutions have been occurring. It could be that the Mexican government had decided to crack
down on weapons cases, Ward said, or simply that looser gun laws in Texas and other states,
combined with eased travel restrictions, led to more people driving into Mexico with guns in their
Ward and State
Department officials emphasized that the Mexicans had legitimate concerns
guns crossing their border. Mexico has seen an increase in the number of weapons coming south,
partly because of the drug trade and partly because of arms-for-profit schemes involving criminal
gangs or rebels.
"But the border
officials tell us they don't have the discretion, or at least they perceive
have the discretion, to distinguish between cases that reach them," Ward said. "Even when it's fairly
clear that it is not an arms smuggler that they're dealing with, that it's a person who made a simple
mistake, they often make no distinction. We're not saying Americans should get off scot-free. But to
imagine that some guy would take two vans filled with 15 people in order to smuggle two weapons
into Mexico just strains credulity."
The U.S. citizens
arrested at the border tend to fall into three categories, U.S. officials
who did not intend to enter Mexico, those who forgot they had firearms in their vehicles and those
who were not aware they carried firearms.
"There are also
genuine cases of arms smugglers," one U.S. official said, "though in our
these are few and far between."
The issue was
discussed in talks in June between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Mexican Foreign Secretary Rosario Green, and the U.S. State Department issued an announcement
on Aug. 3 warning U.S. citizens against taking weapons or ammunition into Mexico.
A bill is under
consideration in the Mexican Congress that would give border officials
discretion in deciding which cases to pursue most vigorously.
None of this
does anything for those under arrest and in prison, and especially for
the handful, like
Manuel, who have been convicted and sentenced. Families of those in prison say they have spent
thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, fighting weapons charges.
Patterson had their charges reduced from possession of military weapons
-- a .22
semiautomatic rifle, a 20-gauge bolt action and a 12-gauge pump shotgun -- to a lesser charge and
were expecting to pay a bond and be released as early as Thursday night and then return home to
Patterson were in high spirits recently when they returned from a hearing
learned that the prosecutor's attempt to reinstate the harsher charges against them had failed. "It's
almost over, I can't believe it," Patterson said. "It's like you fell into a big black hole and there's no
them one of his cigarettes, but his eyes clouded when he heard their good
wish I was going home with you guys," he said.
In El Paso, where
Interstate 10 runs less than a quarter-mile from the Rio Grande and a wrong
can easily feed a driver onto a border bridge, U.S. officials say they have been improving the signs
warning Americans about carrying firearms into Mexico.
On the Mexican
side of the bridge in Juarez, there are 10 lanes for those with nothing
to declare and
two lanes for those who have something to declare.
"If they come
to us and declare that they have a firearm, we will allow them to leave
it with us and
pick it up on their way out of Mexico, no problem," said Rodriguez Cid, who added that no one has
ever done this. "But if they go through one of the other lanes and are pulled over and searched and
we find firearms after that, even if they volunteer them to us, we must consider that they have
intentionally not declared them and that they are being brought illegally into Mexico."
The best idea, Rodriguez Cid said, is for Americans "to leave their weapons at home."
Brown, the man
who was leading two vans of relatives to California and now is awaiting
weapons charges, said he wished he had done that.
His wife died
of breast cancer in July. The trip to California in August was, in part,
an attempt to
break out of the grief from that loss, he said. As he sat in a corner of the noisy prison yard, his eyes
misted and he talked about his 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, now left without their
mother and him.
"I could go through
anything myself, but when I think about those kids," he said, and then
and wiped his eyes.
Brown, who like
the other Americans in the jail in Juarez said he had been treated very
started to work out and has asked permission to run laps on a jogging track. He has to toughen
himself, he said, in case he ends up spending five years or more in the prison.
He took another
deep breath and looked through the bars toward the distant peaks of the
Juarez, leading back toward El Paso.
"I told the people I was sorry," he said. "What else can I do?"