(NEW YORK) -- A former U.S. Marine who took off on a surfing adventure to Costa Rica in August is stuck in a Mexican jail just over the border from Texas, and his family is calling for his release.
Ex-Marine Jon Hammar headed south with fellow veteran Ian McDonough on what was supposed to be a few months of surfing and camping in a Winnebago in Costa Rica. The two had recently finished a treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder, which Hammar suffered after fighting in Fallujah, Afghanistan, according to his mother, Olivia.
"The treatment's very exhausting, it's a tough program, and he was there almost nine months," Hammer's mother said. "(They) decided they were going to buy an R.V., fix it up, drive down to Costa Rica through Mexico, and we were very nervous about it. We tried to discourage it, to tell him to take a plane, but they said, 'We're taking nine surfboards and need a place to stay.'"
Hammar and McDonough arrived on the border between Mexico and Texas on Aug. 15. Hammar, however, had packed his great grandfather's shotgun, a .410 Sears and Roebuck model nearly 100 years old. Hammar had hoped to hunt small birds with it while living in Costa Rica, Olivia said. The pair wanted to register the gun with Mexican authorities at the crossing point.
"There were signs that said you can't take a firearm, and so Ian said scrap it, don't take it, but Johnny said, 'Let's talk to the customs agent,'" according to Olivia. "They said, 'Technically you can (bring it across) but you'll need to register it,' and had (Johnny) fill out paperwork to present to Mexican officials."
The gun was meant for hunting, but border officials arrested the pair on federal charges of having a weapon that is reserved for military use. McDonough was released when Hammar claimed the gun was his.
Olivia and Hammer's father, Jon Sr., hired local lawyers to defend their son in Matamoros, Mexico, where Hammar was taken to state prison. The U.S. State Department was notified by Mexican authorities the following day, according to a department official who spoke on background.
But once Hammar was in prison, his family said they began receiving irregular phone calls from Hammar, sometimes in the middle of the night, and sometimes accompanied by other prisoners demanding money.
"Almost immediately we began receiving extortion calls from cartel members in prison with him," Olivia said. The State Department and Hammar's lawyer, Eddie Varon Levy, would not comment on the claim about cartel members.
Olivia and Jon Sr. say that, filled with panic, they contacted the U.S. consulate in Matamoros, Mexico, which arranged to have Hammar isolated from the general prison population. They were advised not to pay any ransom money, Olivia said.
A State Department official said, "The safety and well being of Mr. Hammar is a serious matter. ...We requested he be moved away from the general prison population, and prison authorities granted that request. Now, he is in a separate room with constant contact with prison personnel."
Hammar's parents are hoping that Varon Levy can help extricate their son from the Mexican judicial system. Varon Levy, speaking with ABC News from Mexico City, said that the charges Hammar was initially arrested on proved false; he was not carrying a banned weapon that was only for the military. The actual criminal charges were brought because the barrel of his shotgun was too short.
Varon Levy said he hopes to get Hammer out of jail within the next month, as he works with prosecutors to discuss evidence, witnesses and possible lesser charges in the case.
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