By Patricia Mazzei
The Miami Herald (MCT)
---- — MIAMI — Jon Hammar, the Marine veteran from South Florida detained for months in a Mexican border prison for bringing his great-grandfather’s shotgun into the country, was released yesterday in what his mother calls a “Christmas miracle.”
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., confirmed in a statement last night that Hammar had been released and was “back safely in the United States.”
Hammar’s mother, Olivia, said she and her husband were awakened with a 2:30 a.m. phone call from Hammar’s defense attorney sharing news of their son’s impending release. Hammar’s father, Jon, quickly found a flight to Texas.
“We made it from our house in Palmetto Bay to the airport in 11 minutes,” she told The Miami Herald. “This is our Christmas miracle.”
The elder Hammar waited for his son, who has been held since August in a prison in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border in Brownsville, Texas. They will likely remain there for a few days, Olivia Hammar said, because her son is interested in getting back the 1972 Winnebago motor home — and some nine surfboards he was transporting — from Mexican authorities.
Hammar was arrested Aug. 13 when he and a fellow Marine veteran, who were headed to Costa Rica to surf, tried to cross into Mexico. Hammar had been told by U.S. authorities he could declare a six-decades-old .410 bore Sears & Roebuck shotgun at the border. The firearm is suitable for shooting rabbits and birds.
But Mexican authorities dismissed Hammar’s U.S. registration papers for the disassembled relic. Prosecutors charged him with a serious crime: possession of a weapon restricted for use to Mexico’s armed forces.
Hammar was sent to the Matamoros prison, where, at one point, inmates affiliated with local drug cartels called Hammar’s parents to try to extort money from them.
U.S. officials intervened, and Hammar was separated from the general inmate population but still spent much of his time chained to a bed to keep him from fleeing.
McClatchy Newspapers, The Herald’s parent company, first reported on Hammar’s plight Dec. 6, when his family decided to go public with the case. Lawmakers responded quickly. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., exhorted Mexico to release Hammar. Ros-Lehtinen, the family’s congresswoman, used her position as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to put pressure on U.S. and Mexican authorities.
She lashed out at the Obama administration for what she said was a failure to offer details on efforts to free Hammar and persuaded scores of her congressional colleagues to sign letters to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security on Hammar’s behalf.
Ros-Lehtinen took to Twitter yesterday morning to publicize Hammar’s imminent release after his mother called the congresswoman’s Washington office.
“We couldn’t believe it, but prayers and hard work really paid off,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It looks like we will have him home for Christmas.”
Nelson, whose office also spoke to Hammar’s mother, said an aide to a legal representative of the Mexican attorney general’s office confirmed the pending release. The U.S. Consulate is standing by to escort Hammar back to the United States.
“No American should be in a Mexican jail for five months without being able to have his case in front of a judge,” Nelson said. “We’re grateful; this is a good Christmas present.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who held a news conference at her Miami office last week with several dozen of Hammar’s family and friends, praised the community for rallying to publicize his case. An online petition to free Hammar, created by his younger sister, Katie, had more than 26,000 signatures as of Friday morning. Earlier this week, Miami-Dade commissioners approved a resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, calling for Hammar’s release.
The congresswoman also applauded the outgoing Mexican ambassador, who was on vacation — and on his last week on the job before a new president takes over — while dealing with the Hammar case.
“I said, ‘What a good way to end your tenure and a good way to start with a new Mexican administration,’ “ Ros-Lehtinen said.
Hammar, 27, joined the Marines after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq before receiving an honorable discharge in 2007 and later serving another four years on inactive reserve.
Upon his return, Hammar, a former lance corporal, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He checked into a treatment center for veterans in California and planned the surfing trip to Costa Rica as a way to find peace, his family said. A lifetime surfer, he traveled with some custom-made boards, including one engraved with the name of a childhood friend who died in a motorcycle accident, according to his mother.
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Olivia Hammar said her son had spent the last few days sick with a stomach bug.
“We’re worried about his re-entry process,” she said. “I don’t even know that I’ve been able to process it yet. … You don’t realize what a physical toll fear takes on you until you have it continually, for months at a time.”
©2012 The Miami Herald
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Hammar