After years of rumor, Tijuana mayor faces charges

After years of rumor, Tijuana mayor faces charges
This June 13, 2006, file photo shows then Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon in his City Hall office during an interview with The Associated Press, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/David Maung, File)
TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Wild-animal collector, gambling tycoon and eccentric former mayor Jorge Hank Rhon has faced unproven allegations of criminal activity throughout his career in the border city famed as a base for drug traffickers.

Now a raid on his home has turned up an arsenal of illegal weapons, prosecutors said Wednesday, and they are setting out to finally make charges stick to a man with deep roots in Mexico's elite who has long been considered untouchable.

Hauled first to Mexico City for questioning, Hank Rhon was flown back to the border early Wednesday. The man who once described himself as a billionaire sat in a Tecate prison awaiting arraignment.

The case comes as Mexico heads into a presidential campaign and the party that ruled for 71 years, the party of Hank Rhon and his legendary father, looks likely to return to power. The unusual circumstances of the raid have had federal officials scrambling to deny it had political motivations.

U.S. officials have long been suspicious of the Hank clan, and the flamboyant Hank Rhon in particular. Gambling can be a prime way to launder money, and Hank Rhon runs a gaming empire based in one of the world's busiest drug-trafficking corridors. Never, though, have they even indicted him on any corruption-related charge.

The word "eccentric" often clings to Hank Rhon. And the 55-year-old father of 19 children with various women has been happy to feed the impression. He has boasted of getting energy from drinking a tequila laced with bear bile, scorpions, and rattlesnakes and steeped with the penises of tigers, lions and dogs.

The Tijuana estate where he was arrested includes a casino, a dog racing track, a private zoo of 20,000 animals and a soccer complex.

He once caused a stir by saying women were his favorite animal, a comment for which he later apologized.

After running Tijuana from 2004 to 2007, Hank Rhon lost a bid to become Baja California governor, but he has been expected to run again in 2013, trying to unseat the National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon.

Deputy Attorney General Patricia Bugarin said Wednesday that troops had found 40 rifles, 48 handguns, 9,298 bullets, 70 ammunition clips and a gas grenade at Hank Rhon's home, and that only 10 of those weapons were licensed.

Weapons possession can be a major crime in Mexico. Most light guns must be licensed and only the military can have high-caliber firearms. Violations can bring as much as 30 years in prison.

Hank Rhon issued a statement denying any knowledge of the guns. And his attorney, Fernando Benitez, said the evidence will be thrown out anyway because officials had no search warrant: "If the search is illegal, everything that was obtained through it is inadmissible."

The army said soldiers caught men carrying illegal weapons and they confessed they had gotten the weapons at Hank Rhon's compound. They justified the warrantless search by saying they saw men with illegal weapons entering the house.

Every major Calderon official has come out to say the arrest of Hank Rhon was an act of law enforcement carried out in full transparency under the law.

Many Mexicans find that version hard to believe.

Columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote Wednesday on the online news site ejecentral that the raid was "an illegal action" by soldiers carrying out duties that belong to police. He questioned the assertion that top officials knew nothing of it beforehand.

The charges against Hank Rhon seemed to bolster longstanding complaints about his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for seven decades, often through force, corruption and impunity.

PRI leader Humberto Moreira warned that the party would not permit a witchhunt or intimidation during the election season.

"There is no witch hunt. Hank's arrest was not for electoral purposes," Federal Attorney General Marisela Morales insisted.

Hank Rhon has been used to the sometimes unfriendly spotlight of attention since his childhood. His father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, was an oft-criticized mentor to generations of PRI politicians. Starting as an impoverished school teacher, he built an immense fortune with companies he amassed while in public office.

Hank Gonzalez also gave his son close ties to the country's elite. The father was a leader of the Mexico State political clique known as the Atlacomulco Group. A man from that faction has a clear lead in early presidential polls: outgoing state Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto. Some have suggested the Hank Rhon arrest was an attempt to sully his candidacy.

Controversy has dogged Hank Rhon at least since the 1988 murder of investigative journalist Hector Felix Miranda in Tijuana. Two of Hank Rhon's bodyguards were convicted in the killing, but denied there was any link to their boss, and no charges were filed against him.

In 1995, as he returned from a trip to Japan, he was detained at the Mexico City airport for not declaring pieces of ivory and ocelot pelts, which are illegal to import. He said they were fakes and spent less than a day in custody after posting bail. The case was dropped.

In 1999, a U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center report described him as an associate of drug traffickers. But then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said the report was incomplete and its conclusions were "never adopted officially."

Suspicions continued to haunt U.S. officials. The U.S. State Department revoked Hank Rhon's visa a couple years ago, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke anonymously because it was not intended for public disclosure. The person didn't know the grounds for revocation.

A cable from the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, obtained by WikiLeaks and dated June 2009, said the PRI in Baja California was struggling to get rid of the "shadow" of the former mayor, "best known for his ties to organized crime and maintaining an animal menagerie in the municipal hall."

The cable gave no evidence of such ties.

In another cable dated July 2009, the same U.S. consulate said that "Hank is widely believed to have been a corrupt mayor and to be still involved in narco-trafficking." Again, it cited no evidence.

A 2008 report by New York state's inspector general said foreign bookmaking operations were in a unique position to launder illegal drug proceeds and it pointed to Hank Rhon's Grupo Caliente. Without alleging actual illegal activity, it said Caliente "could easily exploit its status as a licensed bookmaker to launder illicit proceeds through U.S. tracks' pari-mutuel wagering pools. It is a relatively simple matter."

Nevada's Gaming Control Board has twice warned companies operating there to avoid any contracts with Grupo Caliente.

Despite the suspicions that Hank Rhon could be wallowing in drug money, his operation found itself in debt last year. Grupo Caliente restructured $121 million in debt by selling a majority interest in 46 of its gaming operations across Mexico to Spain's Grupo Codere SA.

A Codere spokesmen declined to comment on the record about the Hank Rhon case, but said his company has no role in the Tijuana complex where Hank Rhon was detained.

About 2,000 people gathered at a traffic circle in Tijuana on Tuesday afternoon to express support for Hank Rhon, who is remembered by many as a kind of political Santa Claus who hosted Mothers' Day and Children's Day parties and gave cash and even homes to those in need.

The group was joined by taxi and bus drivers who stopped their vehicles mid-street to shout: "Calderon, don't be a jerk! Free Hank Rhon!"

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Associated Press writer Mariana Martinez contributed to this report.