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Mexico frees ex-Marine jailed for bringing in gun

MIAMI -- Jon Hammar, the Marine veteran from South Florida detained for months in a Mexican border prison for bringing his great-grandfather's shotgun into the country, was released Friday night in what his mother called a "Christmas miracle."

There was a last-minute delay over paperwork, but Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who had worked for his release, said that he was safely back in the United States Friday night.

The Hammar family, who asked for privacy during this trying time for their son, released a statement in which they thanked those who worked to win his release: "We can never repay you. To our friends and family, who have propped us up on every leaning side: God bless you for your love toward us and our boy. And to people throughout this country who have championed our fight for justice, we have never been more proud to be Americans.

"This Christmas we will celebrate the birth of Christ as never before," the family said.

Hammar's mother, Olivia, said she and her husband were awoken by a 2:30 a.m. phone call Friday from her son's Mexican defense attorney telling them the charges against the former Marine would be dropped. Hammar's father, Jon, quickly found a flight to Texas.

"We made it from our house in Palmetto Bay to the airport in 11 minutes," she told The Miami Herald. "This is our Christmas miracle."

The elder Hammar was waiting for his son outside the prison along with U.S. officials from the State Department, the Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Ros-Lehtinen's office.

Hammar and his father may remain in Texas for a few days, Olivia Hammar said, because her son is interested in getting back the 1972 Winnebago motor home he was driving - and some nine surfboards he was transporting - when Mexican authorities arrested him.

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"It will be closure for him," she said.

Hammar was arrested Aug. 13 when he and a fellow Marine veteran, who were headed to Costa Rica to surf, tried to cross into Mexico. Hammar had been told by U.S. authorities he could declare a six-decades-old .410 bore Sears & Roebuck shotgun at the border. The firearm is suitable for shooting rabbits and birds.

But Mexican officials dismissed Hammar's U.S. registration papers for the disassembled relic. Prosecutors charged him with a serious crime: possession of a weapon restricted for use to Mexico's armed forces.

Hammar was sent to the Matamoros prison, where, at one point, inmates affiliated with local drug cartels called Hammar's parents to try to extort money from them.

U.S. officials intervened, and Hammar was separated from the general inmate population but still spent much of his time chained to a bed to keep him from fleeing.

McClatchy, The Herald's parent company, first reported on Hammar's plight Dec. 6, when his family decided to go public with the case. Lawmakers responded quickly. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, exhorted Mexico to release Hammar. Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, used her position as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to put pressure on U.S. and Mexican authorities.

She lashed out at the Obama administration for what she said was a failure to offer details on efforts to free Hammar and persuaded scores of her congressional colleagues to sign letters to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security on Hammar's behalf.

Ros-Lehtinen took to Twitter on Friday morning to publicize Hammar's expected release after his mother called the congresswoman's Washington office.�

"We couldn't believe it, but prayers and hard work really paid off," Ros-Lehtinen said. "It looks like we will have him home for Christmas."

Nelson, whose office also spoke to Hammar's mother, said an aide to a legal representative of the Mexican attorney general's office confirmed the pending release.

"No American should be in a Mexican jail for five months without being able to have his case in front of a judge," Nelson said. "We're grateful; this is a good Christmas present."

Ros-Lehtinen, who held a news conference at her Miami office last week with several dozen of Hammar's family and friends, praised the community for rallying to publicize his case. An online petition to free Hammar, created by his younger sister, Katie, had more than 26,000 signatures. Earlier this week, Miami-Dade commissioners approved a resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, calling for Hammar's release.

The congresswoman also applauded the outgoing Mexican ambassador, who was on vacation - and on his last week on the job before a new president takes over - while dealing with the Hammar case.

"I said, 'What a good way to end your tenure and a good way to start with a new Mexican administration,'" Ros-Lehtinen said.

Hammar, 27, joined the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq before receiving an honorable discharge in 2007 and later serving another four years on inactive reserve.

Upon his return, Hammar, a former lance corporal, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He checked into a treatment center for veterans in California and planned the surfing trip to Costa Rica as a way to find peace, his family said. A lifetime surfer, he traveled with some custom-made boards, including one engraved with the name of a childhood friend who died in a motorcycle accident, according to his mother.

Olivia Hammar said her son had spent the last few days sick with a stomach bug.

"We're worried about his re-entry process," she said. "I don't even know that I've been able to process it yet... You don't realize what a physical toll fear takes on you until you have it continually, for months at a time."

(Tim Johnson of McClatchy's Mexico City bureau and Kevin G. Hall in the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this story)

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