Mexican authorities to free American in gun case
Tensions • Marine was held for four months for crossing the border with a shotgun.
Published: December 21, 2012 07:43PM
Updated: December 21, 2012 07:52PM

Mexico City • A U.S. Marine veteran who spent the past four months in a Mexican prison for crossing the border with a shotgun will be released Friday, according to his family and lawmakers who came to his aid, ending an ordeal that had heightened tensions between the Mexican and U.S. governments.

Relatives of the detainee, Jon Hammar, 27, who was arrested Aug. 13 when he and a friend drove to Mexico from Texas in a motor home, described his release as a holiday surprise.

“It’s like a miracle; that’s the only way I can express it,” said his mother, Olivia Hammar, who lives in Florida. “It’s our little Christmas miracle.”

She said that her husband had flown to Brownsville, Texas — just across the border from Matamoros, where her son has been in prison — and that she expected her son to be home by Christmas. She added that his arrival might be delayed past Friday because even after a horrendous four months, enduring death threats and ransom demands from members of Mexican drug cartels, her son was determined to get back the confiscated 1972 Winnebago that he drove to Mexico in the first place.

“It’s really important to him, and we feel like it’s going to bring him some closure,” she said.

His case has drawn attention and outrage in the United States since early December, when his family first decided to go public with the details. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have both campaigned for his release. In interviews and in statements, they have described him as a victim of Mexico’s broken judicial system, which routinely fails to convict killers who use weapons far more powerful than the old shotgun, which had belonged to Hammar’s great-grandfather, that he carried into the country.

“Here is the big travesty,” Nelson said this week on Fox News, “the fact that he was picked up in the first place, when obviously he didn’t have any mean, evil intent.”

He added, “There should have been judicial discretion imposed in this long ago.”

But until recently, Mexican authorities were unwilling to discuss the case against Hammar, whose family said that he notified customs officials on both sides of the border about the gun before he was jailed.

Guns coming from the United States are an especially delicate issue in Mexico, which blames U.S. gun dealers for much of the violence there. And with the debate over the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., raging, Mexico’s ambassador to Washington, Arturo Sarukhan, sent a letter to Ros-Lehtinen this week arguing that Mexico had a right to imprison Hammar for carrying a shotgun “restricted for the exclusive use of the Mexican Armed Forces.”

He emphasized that Mexico had a much tougher stand on guns than the United States.

“As you know well, Mexico has had very stringent gun-control laws in place for many years, and have reinforced their application as a 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,” Sarukhan wrote.

It is not clear what led the Mexican government to change its stance. Olivia Hammar said she was unsure of the reasoning, and of the details of her son’s release. But she said she looked forward to telling her son, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and who had been on his way to Costa Rica to go surfing when he was arrested — about the support he received while he was in jail.

“It’s been awesome to watch Americans get on board to help get him out,” she said.