Former U.S. Marine Arrested in Mexico for Possession of Family Heirloom

Ray Walser /

Why is the Obama Administration not doing more to free a former Marine from a Mexican prison?

Twenty-seven-year-old Jon Hammar—a former Marine Lance Corporal and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is attracting increasing congressional and media attention. Hammar was arrested by Mexican authorities on August 13 when he crossed over into Mexico from Brownsville, Texas, on his way to go surfing in Costa Rica. Hammar’s “mistake” was carrying his heirloom shotgun into Mexico without the necessary permit.

While accounts vary as to the nature of information provided to Hammar by our government prior to entering Mexico, he was arrested on the Mexican side and charged with violating Mexico’s tough gun laws. The criminal case hinges on whether the barrel of his Sears and Roebuck shotgun was 24 inches long (illegal, deemed military grade) rather than 25 inches (legal, non-military). It seems quite clear from all available evidence that Hammar misunderstood regulations and clearly had no felonious intent to violate Mexican laws. Yet, under Mexican law, he could receive a 15-year prison sentence.

Pictures of the jailed Marine recently became public. Hammar was chained to his bunk in a dingy dungeon cell. While he has received visits from U.S. consular officials and is scheduled for a hearing on January 17, his treatment reflects badly on Mexico’s justice system, and calls into question the degree to which the Obama Administration has fought for his fair treatment and possible release.

Prison conditions in Mexico are often medieval. Imagine what the world reaction would be if a Mexican national was incarcerated by U.S. officials and held in similar conditions. (It should be noted that part of U.S. assistance to Mexico under the Merida Initiative is to help with modernizing prisons.)

Thanks to Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL), current Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and other congressmen and women from both parties who signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as active support in social media from fellow veterans, Hammar’s case is now receiving the attention it merits.

No one disputes Mexico’s sovereign right to protect itself from the illegal gun trade. Over 70,000 people have died since 2006 in the fight against organized crime.

Yet, there is also a need for a sense of proportion. This is not a case involving the hundreds of murderous high caliber weapons such as AK-47-type weapons that the Department of Justice (DOJ) officials permitted “to walk” into Mexico in the ill-fated Operation Fast and Furious.

Hammar was transporting a family heirloom, a .410 shotgun, for the purpose of bird hunting. Nothing more. The barrel was, arguably, one inch shorter than the Mexican law allowed, and he did not register the weapon. Non-registration of a weapon is typically an offense in which the “offender” receives a citation, not jail time.

The Obama Administration must do more to secure Hammar’s fair treatment and ultimate release. And what about human rights groups, who normally agitate for the detained and oppressed? Why haven’t we heard a peep from them?

Mexico is a key ally—an important partner in this hemisphere. But Mexico’s treatment of Jon Hammar is unacceptable.

Even when many wish to be upbeat about Mexico, individual cases like that of Jon Hammar damage bilateral relations. Our innate sense of fairness and compassion extends to Hammar and others like him, especially when their treatment offends our sense of dignity and the proposed punishment far exceeds the alleged crime. In such cases, the Obama Administration would be well advised not to hide behind the mask of diplomatic doubletalk.