Monday, March 28, 2011

US Mission Mexico: First Person from a Border Post

The story excerpted below is obviously from one of our six border posts in Mexico (where we have an embassy, 10 constituent posts, plus two VPPs). I understand that this personal account has been doing the rounds here and there for the last several months. I have inserted one link below.  Names are redacted per request of my source. See my comments in a separate post.

Relevant sections of 7 FAM 050 Consular Information Program, Warden Messages and the No Double Standard Policy appended at the end.     

First Person from a Border Post:

[...] I understand and have always accepted that 
[REDACTED] is a place with real danger and risks, but this incident makes me believe that my safety is not as high of a priority as I believed it to be, and that in the future other management decisions could play out in the same way, with my well-being subverted to other interests.

At approximately 12:30 AM on Tuesday, I awoke to the extremely loud sounds of automatic gunfire and grenades.  My husband [REDACTED] called the RSO immediately and reported that we thought that the head of the [REDACTED] for [REDACTED] , who is our next-door neighbor, was being attacked.  We had crawled from the bed to the closet and laid there while the blasts lasted, for approximately 30 minutes.  The window frames were rattling violently, and I shuddered in terror and seriously considered calling my mother to say goodbye in anticipation of my death.  During that time we spoke several times to the RSO, the ARSO, and two colleagues, including one who was also located very close to the center of the raid.  A few minutes after the gunfire ended, the electricity in our house cut off.  The ARSO told my husband that he wasn't calling the all-clear because the target of the raid had escaped.  Military vehicles with soldiers standing in the back passed by our house every minute or so.

The next morning, our electricity still off, I went to work.  I saw many roads blocked off by soldiers, including one end of my road (3 houses down), and I saw bullet holes in several houses on my street and others in the neighborhood.  There were a lot of soldiers standing around, and some seemed to be inspecting bullet holes in the side of the house on our street (3 houses down, but in the other direction from the house that was raided).

That morning, my Principal Officer [REDACTED]  met with me for about 10-15 minutes to hear about my experience.  He said I should consider calling the psychological support services available through the State Department.  He seemed surprised that I reported being so terrified during the attack.[...]  He said the good news was that because the raid happened in my neighborhood this time, it probably wouldn't happen again there.  I reminded him of the large daytime narco vs. military battle on Sept. 4, 2009, also in my neighborhood, and he shrugged.

Around 9:15 AM, all the official Americans at the Consulate met again.  The PO pointed out that it was a military raid of a very important Gulf Cartel leader (the plaza boss) and that he had escaped, and that this kind of violence could happen again anywhere at any time because it is part of the [REDACTED]  military's plan.  He indicated that [REDACTED]  knew about the raid but didn't really elaborate.  When [REDACTED] asked about moving our housing to Texas, the PO said we would not be able to move our housing to Texas because of diplomatic credentialing and that things this bad have happened near Consulate families at other border posts, and they haven't evacuated either.  He pointed out that families in [REDACTED]  are eligible for Unique Circumstances Special Maintenance Allowance.  He said the State Department had psychological services that we could use without damaging our personnel records.  The PO said that he would hold a "debriefing" meeting for the spouses at his house at 8 PM. 

The RSO informed us that the emergency text messaging system--intended to send out a warning SMS in emergency situations--had failed and no SMS was sent out, but that the Embassy was working on a new product that it was going to release to the Consulates soon, and that he would ask them to release it as soon as possible.

[REDACTED] questioned why he was the only officer not contacted by the RSO or ARSO. The ARSO[REDACTED] apologized and said by the time they thought to call him, the gunfire and grenade part was over and they didn't think it necessary.  The PO asked [REDACTED] , who had been acting as the unofficial, undesignated Acting NIV unit chief, why she had not activated the phone tree.  In fact, she had never been given that responsibility, her name is not at the top of the phone tree, and neither is the regular NIV Chief's (who was on leave but in town, and who did attend this meeting).  In fact, the phone tree has no relation to the NIV unit's work, or even the Consular Section.  The PO's name is at the top.  Then someone complained about the phone tree not having accurate numbers, and the PO asked me to release a new version.  As the ACS Chief, I have never had any involvement with the phone tree's data or dissemination.  I think the Management Officer was out on leave; he wasn't at the meeting.

  and I had already been planning to go away from post for the long holiday weekend, so I declined for him from the spouse meeting, which I later heard was canceled.  When I got home from work, my colleague [REDACTED]  called and said the more she thinks about it, the more it upsets her that our leadership knew about the military raid in advance and didn't warn us.  Since I had not understood that message from any of my interactions or the meeting, I was shocked and asked why she thought that (she had combined details of what different people had said during the day).  As we were loading the car at around 6:15 PM, my colleague [REDACTED]  called and said he was hosting the PO and the RSO at his house to talk about the raid, and he invited us to meet over pizza with them at 7 PM.
When I arrived at [REDACTED]  house, he encouraged me to call [REDACTED]  and invite her too, which I did.  [REDACTED] , [REDACTED]'s wife, was also at the house.  Then the PO and the RSO arrived, with the ARSO-I FSN Investigator[REDACTED] .  A few minutes later [REDACTED]  arrived, and the meeting started.  The PO began by summarizing the facts of the military raid, including that it was a joint United States-Mexico operation.  He confirmed that he and the RSO knew operational details of the raid, which house was going to be raided, and that the Mexican military was going to effectuate the raid that week.

When we asked the PO why we weren't warned that there would be a military raid so close to our house, he explained that the "no double standard" policy prevented him from disseminating information about the prospective raid.  [REDACTED]  asked if the RSO took any additional precautions to protect us or monitor our location.  PO and the RSO told us that they took no additional security precautions.  I said that the incident felt like a betrayal and I no longer trusted management to prioritize our safety.  PO and the RSO both reacted to that statement with outrage and PO said that he wasn't going to argue with me about my feelings but thought I was wrong.

The RSO said that an email containing security instructions for gunfights, sent out Monday, Sept. 13 at 2:10 PM, was supposed to warn us that the raid was imminent.  Everyone else--[REDACTED] --expressed that we had read the message but did not comprehend the warning and believed it to be routine security information, which we receive often.  [REDACTED] pointed out that we are all ELOs at our first post, so we do not know the subtext to messages such as this, if there even were a subtext to it.
I pointed out that no information was shared directly with the family members, including the email.  PO said that is because the CLO was out on vacation.  The RSO sternly reminded me that it is my responsibility to share that information with my own family and to take security precautions for myself and my family.  The RSO and PO implored that we all should have been able to realize that the email was a specific warning.  The RSO said that he is careful not to inundate us with information so that we know to pay attention to each message.  We all agreed that we had heeded the message and pretty much followed it in the moment of crisis (i.e., not watching from the window, going to the safest part of the house, etc.).

PO told us that he didn't have to debrief us about the military raid and that we should all be thankful that he's saying anything to us.  Then, he confirmed that the Embassy was involved in the decision to withhold from us any information about the raid.  He confirmed that the head of the [REDACTED] , our next-door neighbor, was informed about the military raid.  He said that in retrospect maybe he should have pointed out the Embassy that several Consulate families would be in imminent risk, but that they all thought it would be a "surgical operation" that they thought would have less of an impact on the neighborhood.  He questioned what we would have done differently if we had known about the raid in advance.  I pointed out that and I could have stayed with friends or in a hotel in Texas, and that I would not have hosted a dinner party on Sunday night for some Consulate friends who left my home, driving past the to-be-raided house at about 11 PM, and that I would not have continued taking my dogs on a walk past the to-be-raided house every evening.  PO pointed out again that we were all choosing to have our families live in a dangerous setting.  He admitted repeatedly "I fucked up," but never really apologized for letting the incident happen.  Nor did he seem to think the consequences were that serious or the risks to us as great as we believe they were.  He questioned why [REDACTED] was even upset, because his house was about a mile away from the epicenter.  Earlier, PO had questioned while [REDACTED]  was even at the meeting, because she has no dependents living full-time at post.[...]

Next, [REDACTED]  told PO that we did not join the Foreign Service to be exposed to this sort of danger, especially considering the worsening security situation in Mexico and at Post.  PO responded that [REDACTED]  was wrong because all FSOs are worldwide-available.  PO directed us to curtail if we thought Mexico was too dangerous.  He told us that we should not be upset about the military raid occurring so close to our houses because that's why we receive the 20% hardship/danger pay allowance (a fact he repeated about a half dozen times during this meeting).  When [REDACTED]  became upset and told the PO that his decision not to inform anyone about the raid or take additional security precautions was unfair to the spouses, who were legitimately upset about the military raid, the PO became heated, stood up, and started yelling at [REDACTED] .  The RSO had to step between PO and [REDACTED] to defuse the situation.

We all thanked PO and the RSO for attending the meeting and being forthright with us about the facts of the military raid.  As the meeting ended, the RSO pulled me and [REDACTED] aside into the kitchen.  There, he expressed outrage that I had "sandbagged" him in front of his boss by saying that I no longer trusted the management to keep us safe after they did not disclose the prospective military raid to us.  He informed me that this was "friendly advice" about my corridor reputation, and that his feelings were hurt.  After about twenty minutes of talking, the RSO left.


Related items:

a. In administering the travel information program, the Department of State applies a “no double standard” policy to important security threat information, including criminal information.
(1) Such information, if shared by the Department with the official U.S. community, generally should be made available to the non-official U.S. community if the underlying threat applies to both official and non-official Americans.
(2) If a post issues information to its employees about potentially dangerous situations, it should evaluate whether the potential danger could also affect private U.S. citizens/U.S. non-citizen nationals living in or traveling through the affected area.

(3) If so, the post should notify the Department and request approval of dissemination of the information to the public.

(4) The policy is not intended to prevent the limited distribution of information about threats to specific U.S. citizens/U.S. non-citizen nationals or U.S. corporations. Important security information may be shared on a limited basis when directed toward a specific target or when appropriate to counter a particular threat.

7 FAM 053.2-2 Post’s Role | b.

b. If you learn of a security threat, report it to the Department following the established procedures at your post. At this stage, you should not disseminate information about the threat beyond those with a “need to know” (i.e., persons who could develop additional information or help to counter the threat) to avoid violating the “no double standard” policy (see 7 FAM 053).


Mission said...

Hi -- I linked to this posting at the Smart Leadership blog:

Domani Spero said...

Mission, thanks for the link!