All Johnny Hammar has is a Bible and faith.
The veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan was arrested on the Mexican side of the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge in August for attempting to take a decades-old shotgun into the country.
Johnny Hammar, 27, and his buddy Ian McDonough — both veterans — planned to drive from their home in Miami, hugging the Gulf Coast and surfing as they traveled until landing in Costa Rica, where Hammar had surfed for his first three weeks out of the service, his mother Olivia Hammar said.
A few days after the men’s arrests, McDonough was released because the gun wasn’t his. Hammar remains imprisoned.
“Johnny acknowledged (to Mexican authorities) that the gun was his family’s gun,” Olivia said, adding that it has been passed down through the generations.
The gun is a .410 Sears & Roebuck shotgun that belonged to his great-grandfather.
Now, sources say Hammar is being held in solitary confinement in a Matamoros prison after cartel members began extorting his family. After the American consulate became involved, he was removed from general population, Olivia said.
“We started receiving extortion calls from cartel members who put him on the phone,” she said. “And they said, ‘We need you to wire money, and we’re going to kill him if you don’t.’ They said, ‘We’ve already beat him up,’” Olivia said as tears choked her voice. “And he (Johnny) said, ‘You need to listen and do whatever they say.’”
Hammar served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. He fought in Fallujah and was honorably discharged in 2007.
Tuesday, was the last time Olivia talked to her son.
“He’s coming to the end of himself, I think. He said, ‘I can’t take this much longer, Mom,’” Olivia said.
Hammar graduated with his friend, McDonough, from an intensive nine-month residential treatment center for veterans in Napa Valley, Calif., in May. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, his mother said.
“It’s a very hard treatment,” Olivia said. “It’s called exposure therapy, and it’s where they relive these events. It’s very difficult to get through. It’s intensive.”
Upon completion, he and his friend decided to just disappear, she said.
“For Johnny, his release is surfing. He’s surfed all over the world. He’s surfed extensively in Costa Rica,” Olivia said. “So they decided to buy an RV and drive down there.”
They bought a 1970s RV, invested $3,000 into fixing it up and left South Florida in July.
“They just surfed along the way,” Olivia said. “But we were terrified.”
Sometime in early August — the exact date isn’t immediately clear — Johnny and McDonough arrived at the Los Indios bridge.
“Because there’s all the signs saying you can’t take weapons into Mexico, they weren’t sure about the gun,” Olivia said. “When they got to the bridge and went and talked to Border Patrol, they asked if they could take a hunting rifle into Mexico.”
Hammar would have talked to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, not Border Patrol.
According to Olivia, authorities told Hammar he could take the gun into Mexico as long as it was registered and a fee was paid.
“So Border Patrol took pictures of it and gave them a form to declare it, which is what they did and they were immediately arrested,” Olivia said of when Johnny and McDonough crossed into Mexico.
That’s when the nightmare began, she said.
The office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has sent a formal letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar’s office to inquire why Hammar was told he could bring the weapon into Mexico. The letter also asks for any records concerning Hammar and firearm registration requests he made.
In Mexico, Hammar is accused of committing a grave crime. Namely, prosecutors in Mexico accuse him of bringing a weapon into the country that is used exclusively by the Federal Armed Forces.
His lawyer, Eddie Varon-Levy, said while the charges are serious, Hammar’s case has been mishandled and his constitutional rights violated. Varon-Levy said he is asking for an acquittal and is attempting to get the charges downgraded from a federal crime — as well as getting evidence thrown out because of procedural violations.
Varon-Levy said the definition for exclusive use of the Federal Armed Forces has to do with the caliber of the weapon.
“In this particular instance, the caliber had nothing to do with it,” he said over the phone from Mexico City. “It’s the length of the barrel. The problem for the government is it’s not sawed off. It’s from the factory, and it came like that.”
Additionally, there are discrepancies in the barrel’s measurements, he said.
“The prosecutor that measured it and used that to bind him over for trial said it was 25 inches, but another expert for the Federal government who measured it said it was two- to one and one-half inches shorter,” Varon-Levy said.As of yet, Veron-Levy’s expert has not been granted access to examine the shotgun, he said.
Moreover, the original customs officer who measured the weapon was transferred to Sonora, Varon-Levy said, adding that he is working to get this man to come back so he can cross-examine him.
Varon-Levy also said a witness cannot be used as a translator in the Mexican judicial system. McDonough served as Hammar’s translator during his first court appearance, he said.
Varon-Levy also said Hammar has been made to appear before a judge without representation after the courts were informed that Varon-Levy needed to reschedule a November hearing.
He said the case against Hammar is a waste of Mexico’s resources.
“I understand Matamoros is a troubled border town, but you guys are spending a lot of resources — you should spend it on the bad guys,” he said. “But for some unknown reason they really wanted to make an example of this gringo.”
A trial is scheduled for January, he said.
A desperate father
As it stands, Olivia said the American Consulate in Matamoros is doing what it can.
With their help, Johnny was removed from the general population and put in solitary confinement but Johnny’s woes didn’t end there, she said.
“What happened was because they don’t have a facility that is conducive to a private cell they have him in a storage closet that’s fenced in and they had him chained to a bed,” Olivia said. “Now the consulate has told us that they have told Mexico that he cannot be chained anymore.”
But the fear is still overwhelming for Olivia and her husband Jon. The chilling phone calls they received from cartel members remain fresh like wounds.
“The cartel told us the consulate won’t be able to help us,” she said.
That’s when Olivia and Jon called the consulate’s emergency number.
“So for three or four days we didn’t know what was happening and we kept receiving the calls, and then they just stopped,” she said of the extortion calls.
But it’s nearly impossible to verify any of it, she said.
So her husband traveled to Mexico City to meet with Johnny’s lawyer, Eddie Varon-Levy.
The idea was to get a security detail so Jon could see his son.
“But it was the week of Sept. 11 and they couldn’t get clearance, so my husband hid in the back of a truck driven by his lawyer to go see him,” she said while crying. “My husband’s not brave; he’s a desperate man.”
The American Consulate in Matamoros confirmed Hammar’s plight.
“The Consulate does confirm that Mr. Hammar is being held in a Matamoros prison on a weapons charge but, due to the sensitivity of the case, we have nothing more to add at this time,” it said in a statement to The Brownsville Herald.
Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, said the Hammar family reached out to Nelson’s office when Johnny was arrested.
“Previously, when he was first arrested, we assisted the family about his safety,” Gulley said, adding that Nelson’s office contacted the Consular General’s office. But Gulley said his office has been receiving calls and emails from concerned friends and family members.
“We are planning to reach out to the family very soon,” he said.
Several calls to South Florida 18th District Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office were not returned. The Hammar family is from her district.
Olivia said the legal system in Mexico is confusing and they aren’t sure what the future holds.
“We have tried desperately to navigate the Mexican judicial system, but we are getting nowhere. So we are telling our story to everyone we know,” she said. “All of Johnny’s Marine buddies, both veterans and those that are still active duty are fully engaged through contacting their congressmen and senators, as well as their chain of command.”
She said the family reached out to the Mexican Embassy in Miami and has been told through a U.S. attorney that the embassy is contacting the federal attorney general of Mexico.
“We are not sure what else we can do, but make no mistake we are relentless and will not rest until he is home,” she said.
But most importantly, Olivia and Jon have their faith.
“We’ve prayed more than we ever had before. It’s our faith that is keeping us alive,” a tearful Olivia said. “Jesus is our true Lord and we’re all leaning on him and Johnny, the only thing he has is a Bible and he’s read it from beginning to end.”