MIAMI | Mon Dec 10, 2012 8:49pm EST
(Reuters) - The mother of a former U.S. Marine jailed in a notoriously violent corner of northern Mexico said on Monday that her son was losing hope after being arrested in August for possessing a shotgun that was a family heirloom.
Jon Hammar, 27, was heading to Costa Rica to go surfing when he crossed into Matamoros, Mexico, from Brownsville, Texas, in a beat-up old Winnebago motor home he and a friend bought especially for the trip.
He had registered the shotgun with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on the U.S. side of the border, declaring he planned to take it with him into Mexico.
Despite being told that the shotgun, a Sear & Roebuck model that once belonged to his great-grandfather, posed no problem Hammar was arrested as soon as he crossed into Mexico. The arrest came when he tried to register the gun with Mexican customs officials, his parents and their Mexican attorney told Reuters.
"The crux of it is the length of the barrel," said his mother, Olivia Hammar, 46, of Palmetto Bay, Florida. "There's an old law on the books that says it can't be under 25 inches," she said. "It's a 2-foot barrel and it can't be under 25 inches ... . It's strictly a technicality."
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said Hammar was charged with possession of a deadly weapon. And the family lawyer, Eddie Varon-Levy, said Hammar faces up to 12 years in prison if he is found guilty.
Making matters worse, Hammar suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the death of a fellow Marine who was killed by a sniper's bullet when the two served together in Falluja, Iraq. He had just completed treatment for PTSD at a center for veterans in California last year, before getting caught up in his misadventure in Matamoros.
His ordeal there, in one of the most violent corners of Mexico, has included being shackled to a bed and receiving death threats and extortion demands from drug cartel gangsters who run the prison known as CEDES in Matamoros like their personal fiefdom, Hammar's parents say.
"He's getting more and more hopeless," said Olivia Hammar, who is the publisher of an architecture and interior design magazine.
'AN OUTRAGEOUS CASE'
He was isolated from the general population of the prison, at the request of U.S. Consular officials, after his parents received late-night phone calls saying he would be killed if they failed to make $1,400 payments into a Western Union account to ensure his safety.
"This is just an outrageous case," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and considers Hammar "a hero" because of his combat duty.
"If the parents had not told me about it, and his friends had not gotten involved, I would say that it was just not possible for someone to be in so much trouble for doing the right thing," Ros-Lehtinen said.
She added Hammar had been "denied his most fundamental rights" in Mexico and urged the State Department to take a much more active role in his case.
The family lawyer, Varon-Levy, said he hoped the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office December 1, would help clear the way for Hammar's speedy release after mismanagement of the case under the previous Mexican administration and what he described as an apparent desire to "make an example out of the gringo."
He said he hoped the case could be resolved before Hammar's next court date, a hearing set for January 17.
"We just don't understand how it's possible in a modern global world that we can have a neighbor so close that we're so far away from," said his father, Jon Hammar Sr.
(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
Mexicans have a constitutional right to own firearms,  but legal purchase from the single Mexican gun shop in Mexico City is extremely difficult.A significant number of firearms that make their way to Mexico come from U.S. gunshops. These are then smuggled into Mexico across the US-Mexico border.  Most grenades and rocket-launchers are smuggled through Guatemalan borders  or stolen from the Mexican police or military. The vast majority of the handguns and many of the assault rifles used by the cartels enter Mexico from the United States. Consequently, black market firearms are widely available. The most common smuggled firearms include AR-15 and AK-47 type rifles, and FN 5.7 caliber semi-automatic pistols. In 2009, Mexico seized more than 4,400 firearms of the AK-47 and AR-15 types.  Grenade launchers are known to have been used against Mexican security forces, and M4 Carbines with M203 grenade launchers have been confiscated. It is believed that some of these high powered weapons and related accessories may have been stolen from U.S. military bases
Research has asserted that most weapons and arms trafficked into Mexico are from gun dealers in the United States. In response to a 2009 GAOreport that claimed 87% of Mexican crime guns traced to U.S. origins, the DHS pointed out that "DHS officials believe that the 87 percent statistic is misleading. (i.e: out of approximately 30,000 weapons seized in Mexico, approximately 4,000 could be traced and 87 percent of those - 3,480 - originated in the United States.
In an effort to control smuggling of firearms, the U.S. government is assisting Mexico with technology, equipment and training. Project Gunrunner was one such efforts between the U.S. and Mexico to collaborate in tracing Mexican guns which were manufactured in or imported legally to the U.S.A.
On February 2008, William Hoover, Assistant Director for Field Operations of ATF, testified before the U.S. Congress that over 90% of the firearms that have either been recovered in, or interdicted in transport to Mexico originated from various sources within the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and others have disagreed with these figures, pointing that the Mexican sample submitted for ATF tracing is the fraction of weapons seized that appear to have been made in the U.S. or imported into the U.S. While the United States is not the only source of firearms and munitions used by the cartels, ATF says that it has been established that a 'significant' percentage of their firearms originate from gun stores and other sources in the U.S.
Gun-rights groups in the U.S. use lower firearm tracing figures that advance their goals  while U.S. gun control advocates use higher figures to call for re-enactment of the expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994-2004.
COLUMBUS, N.M. The Narcosphere - Cele Castillo, a former DEA agent who blew the whistle on the CIA-backed arms-for-drugs trade used to prop up the 1980s Contra counter-insurgency in Nicaragua, is now sitting in a federal prison for what may well be another act of whistleblowing in this century.
Before Castillo reported to the federal pen in July 2009, where he is now stuck until April 2012, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons records, he shared with this reporter a series of revelations concerning arms trafficking and what he thought were corrupt ATF agents.
Those revelations, now some three years old, dovetail in great detail with the still unfolding ATF Fast and Furious operation, in which federal ATF agents allowed thousands of high-powered weapons purchased by criminal operatives at U.S. gun stores to be smuggled into Mexico unimpeded.
And Fast and Furious, as recent news reports have revealed, was not the first such operation put in play by U.S. federal law enforcement agencies. A similar “gun-walking” tactic was employed by ATF in 2006 and 2007 under the Bush administration through a program known as Operation Wide Receiver.
Castillo’s case, which involved allegations that he purchased and sold firearms illegally, was largely ignored by the mainstream media, though Narco News reported extensively on it and Castillo’s contention that he had been framed and was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct.
At the time, as he was going through the buzz-saw line that is the federal judicial system, Castillo told Narco News that he was likely being targeted because of his role in exposing the CIA-backed effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua some 25 years earlier, or possibly because he had evidence of corruption within the ATF. But in truth, Castillo really didn’t know what direction the assault was coming from or why he was being targeted.
Now, though, in light of the exposure of ATF’s Fast and Furious, it seems the question needs to be asked:
Did Castillo, well before Fast and Furious came to light this year, rip back the curtain on a long-running U.S.-government sanctioned program to supply illegal arms to paramilitary units supported by the Mexican military — units charged with clandestinely carrying out the dirty work of the drug war in Mexico?
The answer to the question should matter to all of us, because that “war” has cost the lives of more than 50,000 Mexican citizens since it was launched in late 2006 under the reign of Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Well, here’s what Castillo told Narco News in late 2008, some three years before news of Fast and Furious and Operation Wide Receiver starting making headlines in the mainstream news:
During the [Mexican] presidential elections, El Chapo [Joaquin Guzman Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa drug organization] supported [Mexican president] Calderon. Calderon then rented the military to El Chapo to take out Osiel [Cardenas Guillen, head of the rival Gulf Cartel]. Keep in the back of your mind: why has Chapo never been arrested? Calderon took back the military and is now working hand-in-hand with El Chapo.
… The majority of the guns that are going into Mexico from the gun shows are going to the The Mexican paramilitary unit out of Monterrey, Mexico. … A Mexican military captain, "El Capi," is doing all the purchases.
…. These people are part of President Calderon's people who control the drug trade into the U.S. There is an ATF agent … who works with these people.
Castillo, at the time, assumed the ATF agent, actually two of them that he identified, were on the take, not part of an officially sanctioned U.S. operation. But events that have unfolded since 2008 open that assumption up to a possible different interpretation.
Castillo, who never lost his investigative edge, said in 2008 that some of his information was coming from a U.S. government informant, who was later murdered. In addition, he claimed a notorious prison gang, the Texas Syndicate, was working with the supposedly corrupt ATF agents to assure the gun-trafficking into Mexico remained protected from law enforcement intervention.
Castillo’s claims sound strangely similar to allegations that have surfaced recently in the case of Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, a high-level leader of the Sinaloa Cartel now standing trial in federal court in Chicago on narco-trafficking charges. Zambada Niebla claims the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel has a quid pro quo arrangement with the U.S. government through which they were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for providing information on rival drug cartels. Zambada Niebla, in court pleadings, also alleges the Fast and Furious operation was part of an effort to supply Sinaloa Cartel enforcers with weapons.
From Zambada Niebla’s pleadings:
The United States government considered the arrangements with the Sinaloa Cartel an acceptable price to pay, because the principal objective was the destruction and dismantling of rival cartels by using the assistance of the Sinaloa Cartel — without regard for the fact that tons of illicit drugs continued to be smuggled into Chicago and other parts of the United States and consumption continued virtually unabated.
Essentially, the theory of the United States government in waging its “war on drugs” has been and continues to be that the “end justifies the means” and that it is more important to receive information about rival drug cartels’ activities from the Sinaloa Cartel in return for being allowed to continue their criminal activities, including and not limited to their smuggling of tons of illegal narcotics into the United States. This is confirmed by recent disclosures by the Congressional Committee’s investigation of the latest Department of Justice, DEA, FBI, and ATF’s “war on drugs” operation known as “Fast & Furious.”
As a result of Operation Fast and Furious, the pleadings assert, about “three thousand people” in Mexico were killed, “including law enforcement officers in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, headquarters of the Sinaloa Cartel.”
Among those receiving weapons through the ATF operation, the pleadings continue, were DEA and FBI informants working for drug organizations, including the leadership of those groups.
“The evidence seems to indicate that the Justice Department not only allowed criminals to smuggle weapons, but that tax payers’ dollars in the form of informant payments, may have financed those engaging in such activities,” Zambada Niebla's pleadings allege. “…It is clear that some of the weapons were deliberately allowed by the FBI and other government representatives [including the ATF] to end up in the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel and that among the people killed by those weapons were law enforcement officers.
“… Mr. Zambada Niebla believes that the documentation that he requests [from the US government] will confirm that the weapons received by Sinaloa Cartel members and its leaders in Operation ‘Fast & Furious’ were provided under the agreement entered into between the United States government and [Chapo Guzman confidante] Mr. Loya Castro on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel that is the subject of his [Zambada Niebla’s] defense….”
Despite being represented by an attorney who was suspended by the State Bar of Texas for misapplying clients’ funds shortly after Castillo inked a dubious plea deal with the federal prosecutor, the judge in Castillo’s case, at the urging of the that same prosecutor, determined that there was no evidence of Castillo’s defense being tainted by the stink of ineffective assistance of counsel.
The fact that the same attorney’s son was facing federal gun charges, similar to those brought against Castillo, also was deemed by the judge to be little more than an “inference” of a conflict of interest on the part Castillo’s attorney. Hence, the judge, at a hearing held on Friday, July 10, 2009, in federal court in San Antonio, Texas, ruled that Castillo was not likely to succeed in the appeal of his conviction then pending before the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals — and he did not succeed.
As a result, the judge — after extending in mid-February 2009 Castillo’s report-to-prison date by some four months due to the very same ethical concerns raised about his attorney — did an about face at the July 10, 2009, hearing and ordered that Castillo report to prison on July 30, 2009 — to begin serving a 37-month sentence for violating federal firearm regulations, a sentence enhanced due to the judge’s apparent belief that Castillo sold weapons in Mexico.
Castillo, as well as other law enforcers who spoke with Narco News, at the time, contended that the federal prosecutor in the case turned Castillo’s paperwork violation (selling legally purchased weapons without a firearms-dealer permit) into a federal arms-trafficking case as payback for his whistleblowing activity.
The key to the severity of the prison sentence meted out to Castillo — who besides being a former DEA agent also is decorated Vietnam veteran with no prior criminal record — is that the prosecutor in his case argued, and the judge seemed convinced, that Castillo was likely trafficking weapons into Mexico — and by implication to members of narco-trafficking cells.
But Narco News obtained documents (letters that were filed with the Department of Justice) that allege the judge in Castillo’s case was mislead about the trafficking charges by the prosecutor in the case.
Those documents also show that after the federal judge, W. Royal Furgeson Jr., was made aware of that allegation, he chose to chastise Castillo for bringing those charges to his attention outside the proper channels. Subsequently, Furgeson then revoked Castillo’s bail at the July 10, 2009, hearing and ordered him to report to prison to serve out an extreme sentence based on the allegedly misleading — possibly perjured — statements advanced by the federal prosecutor.
Castillo lays all of this out in a letter sent to Judge Furgeson (dated May 1, 2009, and obtained by Narco News). That same letter, including evidence to back up the allegations, Castillo says, also was delivered to the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General and to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. In addition, Castillo says he wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder making him aware of the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in his case as well.
From Castillo’s letter to the judge:
[The prosecutor] made a federal case that I had not documented any names of the people [to whom] I had sold guns. I was given 4 point [sentencing enhancement] for trafficking because [the prosecutor] had once again lied.
… My attorney once again assured me that there was no reason why Your Honor [Furgeson] would not place me on probation, because I had no previous criminal record plus my health issues [a chronic heart condition and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] would be brought under consideration. He stated that in the worst scenario, I would get one year, (home confinement)....
… [The prosecutor] also knew exactly whom the guns went to because the [federal] agents had followed me when I delivered the shotguns. Two agents, from two different agencies [ATF and ICE] have written reports [REPORT OF INVESTIGATION] to that effect with the full name and telephone numbers of the individual who took custody of the guns. Now may there be no mistake that the individual who took custody of the guns did in no way shape or form break the law by taking custody of the guns. He was not a prohibited person and the government knew this to be a fact.
I know that if Your Honor had heard the truth, I would have probably fallen into the probation level of the federal guidelines. Now I can prove that [the prosecutor] lied to Your Honor, with [my attorney’s] handwritten notes and the two [federal] agents’ reports.
Caging the Whistleblower
What Castillo could not have known at the time of his arrest and prosecution is that ATF, through Operation Wide Receiver and later Fast and Furious, was engaged in a legally-sanctioned program allowing thousands of weapons — purchased at guns stores in the U.S., where Castillo also purchased his hobby firearms — to be smuggled, or “walked” into Mexico and into the hands of drug-war mercenaries and assassins.