The “Latest Hell”
This is not a post I wanted to write. I’m afraid I will piss people off who I don’t mean to piss off, but I don’t see any other way to get across what is wrong with U.S. media coverage of Mexico in general without looking at specifics.
Under the alarming headline “Latest hell for ex-U.S. Marine: Chained to bed in Mexican jail” McClatchy Newspaper is needlessly playing to xenophobia and anti-Mexican prejudices in one of the more reprehensible and irresponsible pieces I’ve seen published in an “mainstream” publication in a very long time.
Tim Johnson is by no means a bad reporter. On the contrary he’s a very good reporter, and I am happy that McClatchy recognizes the importance of maintaining a full-time correspondent here. Obviously, reporters don’t write the headlines (for one thing, my friends who served in The Corps tell me the only “ex-Marine” was Lee Harvey Oswald… all others are “former Marines”) but the story itself is, shall we say, badly edited.
Basically, Jon Hammar is sitting in prison in Matamoros for importing illegal firearms. Simple enough… besides the caution in every website, tour book, travel guide, etc. about Mexico, at every border crossing you will see posted:
Johnson — or perhaps his editors — suggests the Mexican law is absurd, and perhaps it is:
The reason might seem ludicrous. Hammar took a six-decade-old shotgun into Mexico. The .410 bore Sears & Roebuck shotgun once belonged to his great-grandfather. The firearm had been handed down through the generations, and it had become almost a part of Hammar, suitable for shooting birds and rabbits.
But Mexican prosecutors who looked at the disassembled relic in the 1972 Winnebago motor home dismissed the U.S. registration papers Hammar had filled out. They charged him with a serious crime: possession of a weapon restricted for use to Mexico’s armed forces.
Not that those warning signs make exceptions for 60 year old shotguns. Mexico looks at firearms smuggling the same way the United States looks at smuggling in heroin. One can obtain a prescription for narcotics in Mexico, but that Mexican prescription doesn’t mean squat to the Customs and Border Patrol. Nor would “U.S. registration papers” carry any weight with Aduana. According to Johnson,Hammar and his traveling buddy, Ian McDonough, “cleared” the shotgun with U.S. Customs (whatever that means).
The Customs and Border Protection agent said it was all right to take the shotgun, McDonough said, adding that the agent told them: “ ‘All you have to do is register it.’ So they gave us a piece of paper and said, ‘This is your registration. You’ve got to pay this much.’ They gave us the piece of paper to give to the Mexican authorities.”
Besides being nonsensical on its face (U.S. Customs couldn’t “clear” a weapon… or anything else… for import into another country. And while I concede it was possible a USCPB (Customs and Border Patrol) officer gave the duo unclear information, or that the McDonough and Hammar misunderstood the officer, I’m dubious of this story, especially given Tim Johnson’s willingness to accept another “American held unjustly for smuggling firearms into Mexico” story that he just accepts on the word of the accused smuggler.
Last April, a truck driver who was carrying ammunition through Texas got lost near the border, dipped into Mexico to make a U-turn and was forced to spend more than six months in jail.
As Porter Corn (Mexico Trucker) wrote of that “lost trucker” Jabin Bogan:
Bogan claims he was paying attention to his GPS, watching the road when a four wheeler on his left side forced him into Mexico with no way to turn around. He also maintained that a US Customs agent at the “port of entry” told him to cross into Mexico and turn around. The latter was disputed early on by a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in El Paso who said agents at the Bridge of the America’s had no contact with Bogan or any “lost trucker” on that day and would have assisted them in turning around, as they have with others in the past. His former excuse about the GPS malfunctioning was debunked personally by myself in September when I made a trip to El Paso and retraced Bogans route that day using two separate GPS units. Bogan, and his US attorney, Carlos Spector continue to claim his innocence of the charges he was convicted of. Possession of Ammunition, even though the 268,000 rounds of NATO ammo grade ammunition was in the trailer that Bogan was pulling when he entered Mexico, according to Bogan and Spector, apparently Bogan was not in “possession” of the load. Strange legal theory if you ask me.
As it was, Mr. Bogin — like Jon Hammar — was initially charged with having weapons (in this case, ammunition… a whopping 268,000 rounds) reserved for the military, something that on conviction would warrant a six to thirty year stretch in prison. But… Bogin cooperated with authorities, and charges were reduced to mere possession of ammunition. He was released from custody and deported to the United States in late November.
Bogin’s supporters included the usual mix of xenophobes and right-wing nuts — who were falling all over themselves to “prove” they weren’t racists by supporting an African-American against the “corrupt” Mexicans. But within his own peer group — the truckers themselves — support was muted (excepting xenophobic and gun-nutty truckers) for a couple of reasons. First, and most obvious, was that Bogin by all accounts isn’t a very smart guy, he worked for a rather marginal company of somewhat dubious reputation, and the amount and type of ammunition he was carrying was obviously not something easily overlooked, or written off as an honest mistake. Soon after Bogin’s initial arrest, the “conservative” truckers’ website Truckers’ Voice posted a review of the incident under the title “Don’t Free Jabin Bogan!“… the argument being that had a Mexican driver been carrying an unauthorized load into the United States, U.S. truckers would be demanding his head on a platter… and that the guy was an embarrassment to truckers everywhere.
Not that Tim Johnson should have included all the details of the trucker who “lost near the border, dipped into Mexico ” and wound up (quite legally and quite correctly) in the slammer, but the connection to Jon Hammar — from a wealthy Florida family (his mother is the publisher and director of Florida Architecture Magazine“Florida’s Luxury Building Design Magazine”; and a director of two other family-held Florida corporations, one being his father’s software consulting firm) are tenuous. Mentioned in Florida news reports on Jon Hammar’s not-so-excellent adventure, the family was able to “reach out” to both of their state’s U.S. Senators and to House Memeber Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is the Hammar’s representative and — while most of us don’t have this kind of access to Senators and Congressional Representatives — it is normal to “reach out” to these kinds of public figures when family members are incarcerated in foreign countries. What is not normal is that Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen reprints Tim Johnson’s story… IN FULL… on her own website. I don’t believe Johnson wrote the story for the benefit of the conservative Florida Republican, but the article is slanted to appeal to reactionary political thinking.
Tim Johnson opens his piece on Jon Hammar like this:
As a U.S. Marine, Jon Hammar endured nightmarish tension patrolling the war-ravaged streets of Iraq’s Fallujah. When he came home, the brutality of war still pinging around his brain, mental peace proved elusive.
He builds a portrait of a very troubled soul:
Hammar, 27, joined the Marines and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq before receiving an honorable discharge in 2007, serving another four years in inactive reserve. In Fallujah, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, Hammar’s Marine battalion was hit hard, with 13 killed in action and more than 100 wounded, Garcia said.
“There were days where it was like, dude, I may not make it out of here,” Garcia said. “If it wasn’t the IEDs, it was the car bombs or the suicide bombs.”
In Afghanistan, the Marine unit provided security for President Hamid Karzai, protected election polls and disrupted insurgent cells around Kabul.
Hammar did not have an easy re-entry to civilian life. After recurring bouts of depression, he voluntarily checked into The Pathway Home, a residential treatment center for veterans in California’s Napa Valley, in August 2011 for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. He graduated nine months later.
“A big portion of his PTSD is survivor’s guilt. It’s a loss of innocence,” said Olivia Hammar, his mother, a Miami-Dade County magazine publisher. “You’re still trying to process all your friends who didn’t come home.”
The “Garcia” mentioned is another former Marine, who is given the last word in the article:
“He doesn’t deserve this,” Garcia said. “We never leave a brother behind. We never leave a Marine behind. We have to do something.”
This is what is highly objectionable in Johnson’s story. The story conveys the sense that the Mexican laws are unimportant, and — even if they are enforced — special rights should be granted to U.S. veterans, and that Mexico would, of course, acquiesce to giving special consideration to people the U.S. considers more worthy than others. (Don’t believe me… read the comments on the story).
Sorry, Tim. I know you didn’t arrive in Mexico until 2009, but I well remember President Fox making a live television broadcast from his hospital room where he was recovering from major surgery in early 2003 to assure the nation that their United Nations Ambassador (at the time Mexico was on the Security Council) would not vote to approve a U.S. invasion and secondly, that Mexico would not, and could not, participate in any such invasion. I also remember the polling results in the Mexican press, showing over 90 percent of the populace opposed the war (being, like Iraq, a country with a crappy army and a lot of oil might have had something to do with it). This was not a popular war with the Mexicans, and I doubt you’ll find much sympathy here based on Mr. Hammar’s service in a conflict the Mexican media called (quite correctly) The War AGAINST Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not that it’s held against those who serve in those unjust wars. The stressed out Vietnam veterans, an earlier, wildly unpopular U.S. military activities who sought a separate (Mexican) peace are familiar enough to make an appearance as sympathetic figures in Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s 1987 La vida misma. Mexicans are not looking to “punish” veterans of the latest U.S. military adventure, and would likely be welcoming and understanding of victims like Mr. Hammar under other circumstances. Which is not to say that — as with any nation — a mentally ill individual who by all accounts was unable to care for himself would be permitted to remain in the country. And certainly providing such an individual with a firearm would seem extremely weird to Mexicans, even if — as Mr. Johnson claims (based only on Olivia Hammar’s understandably biased word) — that firearm was nothing more than a rabbit gun.
Johnson’s piece makes a good point that Mr. Hammar is likely being victimized in jail. And I do mean jail, not prison. As Johnson should know (having mentioned Jabin Bogan in passing), if Jon Hammar were being charged with the more serious crime of carrying firearms reserved for the military, he would be sent to a secure facility away from the border, as Bogan was within a week or so of first being charged. That “Zetas” seem to run the jail, and that Hammar has received threats is no surprise, and I would venture that — crappy as Mexican jails are — that “black hole” in which Hammar finds himself is as close to protective custody as a mentally ill, vulnerable prisoner awaiting trial is going to get.
There is a bright spot… Tim Johnson’s “Latest hell for ex-U.S. Marine: Chained to bed in Mexican jail” brings home not so much the obvious messages that Mexico is a sovereign nation with its own laws that it will enforce, and that the cultural biases of the United States do not necessarily play well outside the country’s borders, but a reminder that incarceration is not conducive to the treatment of the the mentally ill. Alas, the information is lost in this inflammatory piece based on bias sources.
Seeped in cultural myopia, it naturally leads to the comments that seek to “blame Mexico” when … if there is blame to go around… should be put on a culture that all but worships firearms; that glorifies militarism; that takes at face value the biases of those “like us” and doesn’t bother with any possible conflicting information.
UPDATE (11 December 2012). Tom Brown at Reuters has a more even-handed report on Jon Hammar’s plight and his family’s concerns for his welfare. It includes the information (left out of Tim Johnson’s McClatchy article) that Hammar was moved to what Johnson calls a “black hole” at the request of the U.S. Consulate, for the prisoner’s own protection.