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The vice president of the Tamaulipas Chamber of Commerce in Mexico has called on Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to pardon jailed U.S. Marine veteran Johnny Hammar by Christmas.
"We represent 14,000 businessmen, and we believe this action affects the image of Mexico and also Brownsville," said Gerardo Acevedo Danache, vice president for international affairs for the chamber, known by the Spanish acronym CANACO. "When you scare the tourists, you are not sending a good message."
Hammar was arrested in August on the Mexican side of the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios on a weapons charge; he has been jailed in Matamoros since. Family members and an attorney say Hammar tried to declare an antique .410 shotgun with Mexican customs, as his family has said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials told him he could.
When Hammar entered Matamoros, he was planning to go to Costa Rica with a friend to surf.
Acevedo Danache doesn't think the 27-year-old veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars intentionally did anything wrong.
"He had no intention to break the law and that needs to be taken into consideration," he said. "He has been in jail since August, and it's creating an international conflict between two neighbors."
Acevedo Danache said the Tamaulipas chamber is the first in Mexico to call for Hammar's release.
"We will continue to defend his cause, and I want to make it clear: There are many reasons we did (ask for a pardon), and from a humanitarian view, it's the right thing to do," Acevedo Danache said.
However, he has received criticism for defending the American, he said.
"I would do the same if he was Chinese or North Korean," Acevado Danache said. "It sends a bad message."
Aside from the humanitarian view, Acevedo Danache said Hammar's incarceration sends a bad message to tourists -- particularly Winter Texans -- about Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley.
An Ambassador's Letter
Hammar's mother, Olivia, said that while Acevedo Danache and the Tamaulipas chamber's actions are encouraging, she also received what she described as a discouraging letter last week from Arturo Sarukban, Mexican ambassador to the United States.
The letter dated Dec. 12 was sent to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla, who emailed it to Hammar's mother. Ros-Lehtinen represents Florida's 18th Congressional District in South Miami, the Hammar family's district.
"As you know well, Mexico has had very stringent gun-control laws in place for many years, and has reinforced their application as a result of the flow of weapons illicitly purchased in the U.S., and then trafficked into Mexico and into the hands of Transnational Criminal Organizations," Sarukban wrote. "Mr. Hammar was arrested for the possession of a weapon that according to Federal Law in Mexico is restricted for the exclusive use of the Mexican Armed Forces."
The fact that Hammar declared the weapon to Mexican Customs doesn't preclude arrest and prosecution, regardless if he declared or stated to CBP agents that he was in possession of it, Sarukban wrote.
"Therefore, this circumstance requires that he remain under detention during the duration of his trial," the ambassador wrote.
Previously, Hammar's family said cartels threatened to kill Hammar if the family didn't pay money to their organization. Last week, Sarukban told Ros-Lehtinen in his letter that when Mexican authorities learned of risks posed to Hammar, the American was placed in an administrative area to ensure his safety.
"The lack of cells in this area -- or of any security measures there -- left authorities with no other choice but to temporarily restrain or limit his movement," Sarukban wrote. "Because these conditions were neither appropriate or conducive to his well-being and to the security needs of any detention facility, he was then scheduled for transfer to a Federal Detention Center where better conditions would ensure his safety and well-being while the court rules on his case."
But Sarukban wrote that because Hammar's legal counsel rejected that possibility, "he had to be kept in that administrative area with the challenges and conditions above described."
On Monday, Olivia said, she received an undated photo of Hammar -- chained to a bed -- from a Matamoros-based email address.
"My gut tells me it was a sympathizer of Johnny's," she wrote. "It was devastating to see."
Sarukban also wrote that the U.S. Consular officers in Tamaulipas have regularly visited and assisted Hammar and that his right to consular assistance, defense counsel and fair trial has been guaranteed at all times.
However, Hammar's attorney, Eddie Varon-Levy, has said that the veteran's rights haven't been upheld because another U.S. Marine who was initially arrested with him had served as a translator, something Varon-Levy said is prohibited by the Mexican Constitution.
Additionally, Varon-Levy also said that during the Thanksgiving holidays Hammar was made to appear before a judge even though Varon-Levy asked that the hearing be rescheduled because he could not arrive in time from Mexico City.
Sarukban wrote to Ros-Lehtinen that had Hammar pleaded guilty, he probably would have already been released and repatriated to the United States.
"Moreover, Mr. Hammar's defense has had the opportunity to present evidence it has deemed relevant to the case. It is our understanding that Mr. Hammar's attorney is seeking his client be fully acquitted -- which can only occur once all the proceedings are concluded -- instead of securing an early sentencing, which would have in all likelihood resulted in his release and repatriation to the United States."
Varon-Levy has said that Hammar's first defense attorneys pressured him to plead guilty, which would have resulted in a prison term.
In closing, Sarukban told Ros-Lehtinen that Hammar is charged with a severe offense and that Mexico is taking the situation seriously. Earlier in the letter, Sarukban also wrote that the government understands that Hammar is a war veteran, "who has served this great nation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and therefore of the special interest this case entails for members of the U.S. Congress."
He also told Ros-Lehtinen not to hesitate to contact him and said he will stay involved in Hammar's case.
"I will personally continue to stay engaged on this issue, both with you and with Mexican authorities, in seeking to reach a solution to this case," he wrote.
On Monday, Ros-Lehtinen took to the House floor again to push members of Congress to join her in pushing for a speedy resolution to Hammar's case.