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The “Latest Hell”

9 December 2012

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:

no-guns-_jpg_312x176_crop_q100

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Graeme Bristol permalink
    10 December 2012 9:53 am

    Americans are regularly asked at the Canadian border if they are carrying firearms. While Canadian laws appear to be less stringent than Mexican laws on the matter, to bring an ‘unrestricted’ firearm across the border requires a license. Forms must be filled out and ‘presented in triplicate, unsigned, to a customs officer at your first point of entry into Canada.’ US ‘Registration’ papers mean little. When you enter Canada (or any other country) you abide by their laws. Mexico, any more than Canada, is not an extension of the US, much as many Americans might like to think so.

  2. Gillian Smith permalink
    10 December 2012 12:46 pm

    Another pathetic example of Americans assuming they can do what they want, how they want and when they want. Who’s to blame for their stupidity? Their education system? Their governments? I believe it’s their below average I.Q’s and their warped sense of entitlement.
    What on earth is going to happen to them when their country falls in the near future. 300+ million brainwashed fools that continue to think the good old US of A is the only inhabited place on the face of the earth.

  3. Raul permalink
    10 December 2012 2:53 pm

    I along with many Americans respect the sovereignty of Mexico. I don’t think the author gets the point of what is going on with Mr. Hammar’s case. Jon Hammer has not broken any Mexican law. Hammar was not trying to smuggle in a firearm. He presented the firearm to the Mexican border official along with the proper registration papers. Once they realized this, they measured the length of the barrel and charged him with the more serious crime to save face. The actual issues that Mexico is facing with illegal firearms within its border makes this case ridiculous and extremely hypocritical.
    I am sure by my comment that you can deduce that I know the Hammars. They are like most Americans: hard-working middle-class professionals desperate to help their child. They like all of us living in United States of American have access to all elected officials because all elected officials work for the people.

    • 10 December 2012 11:27 pm

      Whether Mr. Hammar broke a Mexican law is up to the Mexican courts to decide at this point. What registration he had was for the United States, not Mexico, and as the story is written some CBP official claimed he could bring the gun into Mexico. That is not CBP’s call.

      As it is, Mr. Hammar is accused of a serious crime (importing firearms reserved for military use) and — as would be the case anywhere in the world when a foreigner without ties to the country is accused of a serious crime — as a flight risk, there is no way he would receive bail (and, firearms offenses are not normally bailable offenses in Mexico to begin with). Whatever his intentions, his incarceration is perfectly legal. His medical condition may merit special treatment (and I believe it does), but my objection is to McClathy’s “spin” suggesting the Mexican government has no right to enforce its own laws or that his service to his own country should merit special consideration.

      • Päncho permalink
        1 January 2013 8:03 pm

        He broke a law, maximum calibers allowed in Mexico are .22 for rifles and .38 for pistols. No automatic rifles or 9mm, and all weapons must be registered and can only be kept within your house, or via a special permit carried when you go hunting or transport them.
        Yes, our laws are much more strict than those of the US or Canada (that’s why the drug cartels have illegally imported guns instead of legal ones…)

  4. Mary O'Grady permalink
    10 December 2012 3:20 pm

    You don’t take guns or ammunition into Mexico. It’s against the law, and Mexico is serious about enforcing that law, has been for decades, since I was a child. I’m afraid that part of the problem is that some idiots assume they can just pay a little bribe if caught with firearms in Mexico.
    I’m very sorry to hear about the way McClatchy covered this story. That chain was one of the very few US news outlets which exhibited any skepticism at all about the Bush lies promoting the invasion of Iraq.

  5. 11 December 2012 12:28 am

    Raul, The US Customs & Border Patrol cannot provide anyone with registration papers to do anything in Mexico. All they can do is provide some sort of documentation that you took something out of the USA so that you will not be charged customs duty when you return with same said object.

    As someone who has crossed into Mexico countless times, I can honestly say you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know you cannot bring firearms or ammunition into Mexico. Period. End of story. History or personal worth be damned. No. Doesn’t matter if it was Wyatt Earp’s pearl-handled pistols in a sealed display case, the answer is NO.

    This business about the barrel length may or may not be true (rural Mexicans are allowed primitive old weapons with a limited amount of ammunition for hunting), but after all the publicity over all the years about Mexican laws and firearms, it is just inconceivable that this guy didn’t know any better. If he wished to check beforehand, he could have done so at a Mexican consulate.

    The number of errors in the story or, shall we say “highly-shaded characterizations,” makes me dubious of many of the article’s claims.

    At the minimum, the reporter has a duty to explain that US government officials CANNOT provide you with permission to do ANYTHING in ANY other country. Never. Ever. Period.

    Normally, McClatchy is better than this, but my antenna went up when I first read this coverage.

  6. 18 December 2012 12:08 am

    Hammar was asking permission to bring the shotgun into Mexico. He was not smuggling anything into Mexico. All the Mexican border agents had to do was turn him around and send him back to the U.S. border agents. Nothing Hammar did warrants sending him to prison.

    • 18 December 2012 1:41 am

      The Mexican prosecutor (ministerio publico) says he didn’t ask permission from the Mexican government to bring in a weapon which they say is illegal… a serious crime in this country. I agree that sitting in jail is not good, especially for a guy with PSTD, but where else would a court system stick a foreigner charged with a serious crime, who has no ties to the country? Agreed, Mr. Hammar, like other emotionally disturbed and/or mentally ill people need an alternative to jail. If there had been adequate treatment for veterans with PSTD in the United States, the “surfing trip with a shotgun” cure never would have been tried, and that’s the shame of the whole thing.

  7. 31 May 2014 7:06 pm

    I love reading an article that will make people think. Also, many thanks
    for permitting me to comment!

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