US ex-marine to be released from prison after violating Mexico's strict gun laws

Former US marine Jon Hammar was imprisoned in August for carrying an antique gun into Mexico. Despite record levels of violence, such arms are prohibited without permission from the government.

Courtesy of Reuters
Jon Hammar, a former US Marine jailed in northern Mexico is seen in an undated photograph provided by his family.

The American ex-Marine who has been holed up in a Mexican prison in one of the most dangerous regions along the US-Mexico border is reportedly going to be released today, in time to return home for Christmas.

Jon Hammar's crime: He carried an antique gun across the border from Texas that, his family says, he was planning to use on a hunting trip in Costa Rica. But en route, he passed through Mexico, where despite record levels of violence, such arms are prohibited without permission from the Mexican government.

Republican lawmakers rallied around Mr. Hammar's case, circulating photos of him chained to his jail bed. Some even called for Americans to boycott travel to Mexico until his release.

Hammar’s case came to light at a sensitive time in the gun-control debate. News broke of his August arrest in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, where an American took the lives of 20 elementary school students ages 6 and 7 last week, as well as six adults at the school and his mother.

The Newtown shooting has sparked sympathy around the world but generated renewed criticism from south of the border, where politicians point the finger at the US, saying lax gun laws have contributed to Mexican drug violence. 

John Ackerman, a professor of Mexican law, writing in The Huffington Post, said this week that among the 60,000-plus death toll in Mexico, there are many innocent victims, including children. Regarding Newtown, he writes, “The National Rifle Association (NRA) should be applauded for its willingness to 'offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.' But the discussion should be guided just as much by the plight of Mexican children as by the fears of suburban mothers.”

Mexican gun laws

Hammar’s case has highlighted the stark difference between American and Mexican gun laws.

Hammar's mother, Olivia Hammar, told CNN that her 27-year-old son has been behind Mexican bars since August, after he stopped for gas in Matamoros, the notorious border town across from Brownsville, Texas, en route to Central America.

He was driving with a friend in his Winnebago, and the vehicle carried four surf boards, according to Mrs. Hammar. But he also packed an antique shotgun passed down from his great-grandfather, CNN reports.

His family only took the case public recently. 

Hammar reportedly declared the weapon with US border agents and then Mexican officials, and Republican lawmakers lobbying for Hammar’s release have said he was given “bad” information by US officials about the laws in Mexico, where gun laws are, at least on the books, prohibitive.

Guns are as easy to buy on the black market here, like any illegal good, but unlike in the US, Mexican citizens who seek to legally own a weapon must apply for one through the country’s department of defense. There are no gun stores; all weapons are purchased through the government, after extensive background checks.

But this case also carries a certain amount of irony.

Over the six years of former President Felipe Calderon's administration, when the "drug war" hit a fever pitch, drug traffickers have been documented using all manner of weaponry, from grenades to so-called “matapolicias” or “police killers” to monster “narco” tanks.

Some of those weapons, ammunition, and defense mechanisms are confiscated and their owners arrested. But with impunity rates at over 90 percent, most of the perpetrators go free.

But the one sitting in Mexican jail for four months was this young American carrying an antique shotgun. And while he did break Mexican law, his plight also highlights the extreme challenges facing the Mexican justice system, as drug traffickers are employing combat-style weapons with little fear of getting caught, let alone languishing in jail.

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