BY DIANE DIMOND
By the time you read this, I earnestly hope that ex-Marine Lance Cpl. Jon Hammar is a free man. I hope that our State Department has stepped up to help this military hero in his time of need. I hope that politicians in his parents’ home state of Florida have tossed their weight around enough to end the madness that has enveloped young Hammar’s life.
I’m not optimistic.
For almost four months, 23-year-old Hammar has been held in a notoriously dangerous prison in Matamoros, Mexico, on a trumped-up charge that he tried to bring a military weapon into Mexico (it was actually his great-grandfather’s 100-year-old bird-hunting rifle).
The prison where Hammar is being held, known as CEDES, is populated by inmates tied to Mexico’s violent drug cartels, and according to those in the know, these gangsters literally run the institution. Once the thugs realized there was a prized American housed among them, the beatings and extortion attempts began.
Jon’s parents, Olivia and Jon Sr., only recently decided to go public with their son’s plight out of sheer frustration. They had been scared into silence because shortly after Jon was arrested in mid-August, they began receiving terrifying phone calls from inside the prison demanding money. Olivia recounted one call during a television interview this week.
“They’re saying, ‘You need to wire us money, or we’re going to kill your son, we’ve already f—ed him up.’ And initially I thought it was a scam, but then they put him on the phone and he was breathless and I knew they had.” Olivia tearfully added that her son told her over the phone: “You need to do whatever they say. I’m so sorry. I’ll pay you back.”
Hammar enlisted in the Marines at 18 because he believed he could make a difference. He proudly served for four years in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fighting he saw was so fierce and deadly — especially in Fallujah, Iraq — that upon coming home, Jon needed help dealing with post-traumatic stress. He entered an intensive nine-month program where he met another combat vet, Ian McDonough.
Once they finished the PTSD course, the outdoorsy Jon, along with his new pal, Ian, decided to buy an old Winnebago, toss in their surfboards and take some R&R in Costa Rica. As they prepared to cross the Texas border into Mexico, a U.S. customs agent advised Jon that he needed to register the old rifle with Mexican authorities and gave him papers to fill out for that purpose.
Once into Mexico, the papers were presented and ignored. The two men were arrested on federal charges of having a weapon that is reserved for military use. Preposterous, that a Sears and Roebuck .410 shotgun nearly a century old could, be confused with a military firearm!
Like the loyal Marine he is, Hammar declared that the gun was his, and his fellow veteran, McDonough, was released.
Jon’s parents immediately notified the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros and hired a local lawyer who told ABC News he feared authorities wanted to “make an example out of the gringo.” The U.S. State Department was informed and helped only to the extent that it got Jon moved out of the general population. According to Olivia, however, her son was then chained to a bed in a small storage shed. The State Department now says they got the chains removed.
OK, I’ll just say it. Why is the United States of America so wimpy when it comes to dealing with Mexico? I mean, for years now — through several Republican and Democratic administrations — we have let Mexico’s problems fester and then ooze across our border nearly unchallenged. The illegal flow of people, guns, drugs and deadly violence seems never-ending, and in the meantime Washington acts like it is paralyzed.
There is no better time than right now for President Obama to pick up the telephone and demand Mexico’s newly installed President Enrique Pena Nieto secure the release of this U.S. Marine. Pena Nieto just took office Dec. 1, and from the get-go Mexico’s new leader should be put on notice that this country will not stand for an American citizen being held on phony charges. It is way past time that America flex its considerable muscle with our nettlesome neighbor to the south. As my father used to say, “You only get the respect you demand.”
We recently sent a Special Ops SEAL team into Afghanistan to rescue a doctor from Colorado who had been held by the Taliban for five days. Doesn’t a war veteran held just across our border deserve the same consideration?
Unless there’s more to this story that’s unknown, it is also time for Congress to get involved. Only three Florida-based politicians have stepped up to urge the State Department to do more: Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It is astounding to me that only three lawmakers find young Jon Hammar’s situation unacceptable.
The Marine Corp has a sacred code. They don’t leave fellow warriors behind. American politicians should damn well make sure they don’t leave this Marine stranded in a country that is supposed to be our ally — a country where cartel-ordered deaths are a daily occurrence.
Now that Hammar’s plight has been made public, as his mother said, “We need this to end fast.”
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected].