When Dean Haas considers his career so far, he describes its most emotionally difficult period as a two-week "hostage situation" involving a group of Americans "who'd gone to look for Noah's ark." There was, of course, the gunplay and murder at the upscale mall in Bogotá, Colombia. There was, of course, the bomb that exploded in the consulate parking lot in Adana, Turkey. That Haas isn't quick to mention these things is a hint that his job is unlike like most others.
"I usually say it this way, 'I'm just a poor boy from Chula Vista.' We were middle class at best. To be honest, I find my job representing my country most fulfilling when I explain my background and say that I made it on merit. A lot of countries, most countries, don't give their citizens that opportunity."
When I spoke with Haas last spring via Internet instant messages, he was ending a three-year tour as deputy chief of mission, or deputy ambassador, at the U.S. embassy in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
"My parents had high expectations of both my sister and me, even though neither of my parents went to college.
"I'm really a Chula Vista native. My dad, who is now deceased, was from Binghamton, New York. My mom was from Duluth, Minnesota. They migrated to California in the mid-'50s and met there, in San Diego. They married in 1958. They lived in Chula Vista, where I was born. My dad owned a small business in Chula Vista called Radio Service Co. He repaired and sold communications equipment. He did TV and stereo repair and sales as well."
Over the nights and mornings Haas and I typed away at each other (Slovenia is nine hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time), I talked with Haas about the peculiarities of foreign service life.
"I'm often surprised," Haas told me, "by how little most Americans understand about the work we do."
I understood a little. A friend of mine served in the mid-1990s at the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. It was only recently, after having known my friend for several years, that he told me a colleague he'd much admired was killed in Pakistan. At about 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday, March 8, 1995, at a downtown Karachi intersection, masked gunmen opened fire on a U.S. Consulate van, killing two consulate workers and wounding a third.
My friend didn't say much about the incident. I couldn't tell if this was because what happened was difficult for him to discuss, or if there were intelligence concerns that kept him mum, or if he thought there were aspects of foreign service life that civilians couldn't easily understand. The more I heard about what the State Department refers to as the "foreign service lifestyle," the more unusual it seemed.
"It's really not all that strange," my friend told me. "There are Americans in Tijuana in the 'foreign service lifestyle.' There's a U.S. consulate in Tijuana. It's big. It's a consulate general. You should talk to them."
Liza Davis, a 34-year-old Virginia native with a creamy complexion and shoulder-length brown hair, is the person journalists talk to when they want to find out what's going on at the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana. Davis's title is public affairs officer, and she creates the official face the consulate presents to Mexico and Mexicans and to the Americans whom the consulate serves.
"We're the busiest U.S. consulate in the world," Davis said on the late-spring afternoon we first met. Her tone was upbeat, can-do. "We deal with more deaths, arrests, and injuries of American citizens than any other U.S. consulate.
"We estimate that, at any given moment, there are 250,000 American citizens either living in or visiting the Baja peninsula. And all of those American citizens are deserving of our consular services. We have a whole section for American citizen services. Three or four of our Mexican staff are lawyers. The most senior Mexican employee in our American citizens services section is a lawyer.
"The fundamental reason that consulates and embassies exist is twofold. First, we represent the interests of the United States in foreign affairs -- Benjamin Franklin, our first diplomat, was sent to Europe to do that. And, secondly, we protect Americans overseas. Traditionally, those Americans were sailors, and that's why a lot of consulates were in ports. Our fundamental mission is to protect Americans overseas.
"Let's say you come to Tijuana and you get arrested. At this consulate we're so ramped-up on American citizens' services, we don't even wait for you to call. We call the jails, the morgue, and the hospitals every day, in our whole consular district, all the way down to Baja South. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on holidays and on weekends, we have duty officers who are making those calls. We all take turns as duty officers. We have such good local relationships that we don't usually have a problem where someone molders for a week because no one knew he was an American. We're in there every day saying, 'OK, who have you got?'
"I've seen some of our fellow citizens do some of the stupidest, most illegal things possible. But I've also seen plenty of people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and through no fault of their own were injured or arrested."
The number of stupid or unlucky Americans whom the consulate helps amazed me.
"About 25 percent of all Americans arrested overseas are arrested in our consular district," Davis said. "In the fiscal year 2004, the total arrests of American citizens in the entire Baja peninsula was 2956. We didn't directly come to the aid of all of them, but someone at the very least took a phone call about them and filled out a form. At the very least the consulate knew they were arrested and was prepared to intervene if necessary. There's everything from arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct to people who were picked up for drug possession or violent crimes. Of those 2956 people arrested, I'd estimate that one-tenth required that we visit them in jail and help them find a lawyer."