A Republican congressman Thursday threatened Mexico with a travel boycott until a former Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan is released from prison after his arrest by Mexican authorities for being in possession of an antique shotgun.
The cause of former Marine Jon Hammar, beaten by other inmates in a Mexican jail and shackled to a wall, has received strong bipartisan support in Congress, with 69 members urging the State Department to press Mexican authorities for a “speedy resolution to this extremely unfortunate situation.”
“I’m calling on all Americans to boycott travel to Mexico until U.S. citizen and Marine combat veteran Jon Hammar is released,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, a former Marine who also saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’m also prepared – along with several of my colleagues – to go to Mexico and ask for his immediate release.”
“We need to know that the State Department is doing everything it can to secure his release. So far, I haven’t seen the aggressiveness that’s necessary and expected under the circumstances,” Mr. Hunter said. “Getting this Marine out of prison and home to his family must be a priority. Marines don’t leave each other behind, and I’m willing to do whatever I can to see that he comes home safely.”
Mr. Hammar, a 27-year-old Miami resident, is being held in a prison in Matamoros following his arrest in August while on a surfing trip from Florida to Costa Rica with a friend to help them both cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who also has worked for Mr. Hammar’s release, urged in a letter Thursday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that they “exhaust any and all diplomatic means to ensure the well-being of this U.S. citizen and Marine veteran” and bring him home.
Sixty-eight other lawmakers signed the letter.
“A bipartisan group of my colleagues and I are extremely concerned over the continued incarceration of Jon Hammar in a Mexican jail,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said. “The details of Jon’s incarceration that the family has relayed to me are outrageous and appalling. This must be settled now, and Jon must be allowed to come home immediately.”
In a brief telephone interview Thursday from her home in Miami-Dade County, Mr. Hammar’s mother, Olivia Hammar, said the family isn’t discussing details about her son’s plight or the legal strategy aimed at bringing him back to the United States while an important legal ruling remains pending. It was expected as soon as Friday.
However, she did say the family had filed a motion in the Mexican courts essentially saying her son’s rights under Mexico’s constitution haven’t been honored.
“We feel like we have a really strong case,” she said. “Our lawyer said he’s feeling cautiously optimistic. We’re waiting to comment until that happens.”
Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Mr. Hammar was honorably discharged in 2007 and served four more years on inactive reserve subsequent to his discharge.
He was diagnosed with PTSD – having seen his Marine battalion suffer a large number of casualties in Fallujah and elsewhere – and voluntarily checked himself into an inpatient facility in August 2011, graduating from the program in May. Shortly after graduation, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said, Mr. Hammar and a fellow Marine from the inpatient program purchased a recreational vehicle and planned the surfing trip to help them cope with his stress.
Along with his surfboards, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said, Mr. Hammar brought with him one of his most prized possessions – his great-grandfather’s old-fashioned Sears & Roebuck .410 shotgun. She noted that this is the smallest of the traditional shotgun sizes, used for small-game hunting.
“Jon took all the precautions he believed necessary and honestly sought to fully abide by all laws and regulations regarding transporting his shotgun across the border, including asking the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents for the proper procedures to do so,” the lawmaker wrote in her letter. “The CBP agents informed him that he could take his shotgun into Mexico as long as he registered it with the Mexican authorities.
“We are extremely concerned over the role Customs and Border Protection has played in this situation,” she said.
A State Department official said Mr. Hammar was arrested Aug. 15 in Matamoros and charged with possession of a restricted firearm, and the U.S. Consulate General in Matamoros has been providing consular services to the former Marine since the office was notified of his arrest on Aug. 16.
“Since the arrest, we have been in frequent contact with Mr. Hammar, as well as with his family in the United States,” the official said. “We take the safety and well-being of our incarcerated U.S. citizens very seriously. When Mr. Hammar was threatened in prison by other inmates, consular officials arranged with prison officials for Mr. Hammar to be moved away from the general prison population. Mr. Hammar is now in a separate area where he has constant contact with prison personnel.”
The official also said when the State Department learned that physical restraints were being used, it raised the issue with prison authorities, who agreed to stop using the restraints.
“We will continue to monitor Mr. Hammar’s safety and well-being throughout his detention and continue to work with Mexican authorities to address any concerns regarding the progress of his case and treatment,” the official said.
CBP was less candid, saying that because of privacy concerns, the agency does not comment on the specifics of a person’s processing and does not provide advice regarding the laws of foreign governments.
Lydia Antonio, spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said: “The government of Mexico has no comments at this time on this issue.”
The Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, recently reminded Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen in a letter that Mexico’s strong gun-control laws were the result of “the flow of weapons illicitly purchased in the U.S. and then trafficked into Mexico and into the hands of transnational criminal organizations.”
Mr. Hammar faces up to 15 years in a Mexican prison if convicted.
In her letter, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said, “Jon and his friend trusted that the CBP agents were giving him the correct information, so they crossed into Mexico and attempted to register the shotgun legally.
“He was arrested immediately while trying to declare the shotgun. Jon was told he was being charged with possession of an assault rifle which is restricted for military use,” she said.
Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said Mr. Hammar initially was placed in the prison’s general population, where he was beaten by the other inmates. She said his parents immediately began receiving extortion calls from those inmates and were told their son would be killed unless the extortion money was paid. She said the inmates even forced the former Marine to speak to his parents on the phone and tell them to pay the money or he would be killed.
She said Mr. Hammar’s parents contacted the U.S. Consulate, which arranged for him to be removed from the general population. However, she said, he was then isolated in a room where he was shackled to his bed and the wall, which she called a clear violation of human rights. She said her office has since been assured by the State Department that Mr. Hammar is no longer being chained to his bed or the wall.
“This situation is unacceptable. Though the State Department has provided updates on Jon’s well-being, it has not provided details on what our government is doing to get him released from prison,” she said. “We urge the State Department to continue to press the Mexican authorities for a speedy resolution to this extremely unfortunate situation.
“We would like these matters resolved as quickly as possible so that Jon can return home to be with his family before Christmas,” she said. “Jon put his life on the line for our country, and the United States government has a responsibility to him and his family to do everything within its power to bring him home.”
Jim McElhatton contributed to this report.