MIAMI (Reuters) - The mother of a former U.S. Marine jailed in a notoriously violent corner of northern Mexico said on Monday that her son was losing hope after being arrested in August for possessing a shotgun that was a family heirloom.
Jon Hammar, 27, was heading to Costa Rica to go surfing when he crossed into Matamoros, Mexico, from Brownsville, Texas, in a beat-up old Winnebago motor home he and a friend bought especially for the trip.
He had registered the shotgun with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on the U.S. side of the border, declaring he planned to take it with him into Mexico.
Despite being told that the shotgun, a Sear & Roebuck model that once belonged to his great-grandfather, posed no problem Hammar was arrested as soon as he crossed into Mexico. The arrest came when he tried to register the gun with Mexican customs officials, his parents and their Mexican attorney told Reuters.
"The crux of it is the length of the barrel," said his mother, Olivia Hammar, 46, of Palmetto Bay, Florida. "There's an old law on the books that says it can't be under 25 inches," she said. "It's a 2-foot barrel and it can't be under 25 inches ... . It's strictly a technicality."
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said Hammar was charged with possession of a deadly weapon. And the family lawyer, Eddie Varon-Levy, said Hammar faces up to 12 years in prison if he is found guilty.
Making matters worse, Hammar suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the death of a fellow Marine who was killed by a sniper's bullet when the two served together in Falluja, Iraq. He had just completed treatment for PTSD at a center for veterans in California last year, before getting caught up in his misadventure in Matamoros.
His ordeal there, in one of the most violent corners of Mexico, has included being shackled to a bed and receiving death threats and extortion demands from drug cartel gangsters who run the prison known as CEDES in Matamoros like their personal fiefdom, Hammar's parents say.
"He's getting more and more hopeless," said Olivia Hammar, who is the publisher of an architecture and interior design magazine.
He was isolated from the general population of the prison, at the request of U.S. Consular officials, after his parents received late-night phone calls saying he would be killed if they failed to make $1,400 payments into a Western Union account to ensure his safety.
"This is just an outrageous case," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and considers Hammar "a hero" because of his combat duty.
"If the parents had not told me about it, and his friends had not gotten involved, I would say that it was just not possible for someone to be in so much trouble for doing the right thing," Ros-Lehtinen said.
She added Hammar had been "denied his most fundamental rights" in Mexico and urged the State Department to take a much more active role in his case.
The family lawyer, Varon-Levy, said he hoped the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office December 1, would help clear the way for Hammar's speedy release after mismanagement of the case under the previous Mexican administration and what he described as an apparent desire to "make an example out of the gringo."
He said he hoped the case could be resolved before Hammar's next court date, a hearing set for January 17.
"We just don't understand how it's possible in a modern global world that we can have a neighbor so close that we're so far away from," said his father, Jon Hammar Sr.
Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Lisa Shumaker