Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jorge Hank Rhon

By now it's old news that Jorge Hank Rhon, the eccentric millionaire former mayor of Tijuana and controversial PRI stalwart, has been arrested on gun charges. The owner of Agua Caliente racetrack and various other establishments in Tijuana, Hank Rhon was arrested Saturday with 10 other people, for the possession of 88 guns, 9,298 rounds of ammo and a gas grenade.

As far as gun possession goes, I'm not surprised Hank Rhon has an arsenal like this, even if he denies ownership (his wife claims, on the other hand, that he has the appropriate licenses for them.) The guy lives in Tijuana, has a number of businesses, and has to deal with serious security issues that anyone who owns a business in Mexico would be well aware of.

But Hank Rhon is as controversial a figure as any in Mexico. There have long been suspicions that he has ties to drug trafficking (always denied and never proven; but as recently as 2009, a US diplomatic cable said that he is "widely believed to have been a corrupt mayor and to be still involved in narco-trafficking") and he has been accused of being the intellectual author of the murder of a muckraking Tijuana journalist. Still, he has always escaped serious investigation – he was briefly arrested in 1995 at Mexico City's airport in possession of endangered animal skins and ivory – and even made a run for governor of Baja California after his stint as mayor.

Hank Rhon is a character – at 55, he's had numerous wives and girlfriends and has 19 children; he once famously said that women were his favourite animals; he also has a zoo inside the racetrack in Tijuana which is home to crossbred lions, tigers, you name it. His father, Carlos Hank Gonzales, was famous for saying that "a politician who is poor is a poor politician," while Hank Rhon has famously claimed that he is so rich he cannot be corrupted.

But is Hank Rhon guilty of more than gun possession, if even that? Some PRIistas are accusing the authorities of a "witch hunt" ahead of the State of Mexico gubernatorial elections in July (State of Mexico is the Hank family and PRI stronghold). In spite of Hank Rhon's lackluster performance as mayor, supporters have turned out in Tijuana to rally in his favour. Hank Rhon, meanwhile, has now been transferred to the medium-security prison in Tecate, Baja California, after spending a few days in the holding cells of the SIEDO, the organized crime division of the attorney general's office.

There is talk that the authorities are trying to nail him on organized crime-related charges; if so, they had better have more evidence than just the guns. After all, authorities have tried to investigate Hank Rhon before, and it hasn't been easy. (Update: some of the guns apparently are military-issue – a serious federal offense.)

Still, as Hank Rhon told me during our interview in 2004: "I’ve always [said], 'Don’t pay attention to gossip, just find the proof, then come back'."

"The truth is, it’s what happens when you’re starting to become too popular and you step on someone’s foot...," he continued. "They find a way to neutralize you. But it’s always been allegations..."

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