Arrest of Tijuana ex-mayor sparks political firestorm

MEXICO CITY — Soldiers in Tijuana arrested one of Mexico's most colorful and wealthiest politicians Saturday, claiming they had found 88 weapons on his property near the border city's racetrack.

The detention of Jorge Hank Rhon, a former mayor of Tijuana, sparked an angry outcry from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which suggested the arrest was politically motivated in the run-up to 2012 presidential elections.

The National Defense Secretariat said in a statement that soldiers in Tijuana, acting on a tip, raided Hank's property before dawn Saturday, finding 40 rifles, 48 handguns and more than 9,000 rounds. The army turned Hank and 10 other people, presumably employees and family members, over to state prosecutors on firearms violations, it added. Mexican law restricts citizens from having such weapons.

Hank is one of Mexico's most flamboyant politicians. He's sired 19 children, operates hotels and gambling parlors across Mexico, favors drinking tequila garnished with scorpions and the rattle of a rattlesnake, and once claimed to be so rich that he was incorruptible.

Hank, 55, was mayor of Tijuana from 2004 to early 2007, then ran unsuccessfully for governor of Baja California state.

He is the son of Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a schoolteacher who rose to become a political baron of the opposition PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades before losing power in 2000. Hank Gonzalez once served as mayor of Mexico City and governor of the state of Mexico, one of the nation's 31 states. He died in 2001.

The son has been controversial on both sides of the border, dogged by allegations of corruption, cronyism and links to drug-trafficking gangs.

A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks said Hank is "widely believed to have been a corrupt mayor and to be still involved in narco-trafficking."

The cable recounted how a U.S. citizen suspected of being a drug trafficker came into the U.S. consulate across the street from Hank's Agua Caliente Racetrack, but that his arrest was thwarted when he was whisked back onto Hank's property and state police declined to pursue him.

"State law enforcement officials appear unwilling to meddle on areas considered his turf," the cable said.

Hank is known for a passion for wild animals, maintaining a huge private menagerie. In 1995, he was briefly arrested in Mexico City's airport with 12 suitcases filled with ivory, pearls and endangered animals' pelts. He was released within hours, fortifying the family's reputation as being "untouchable."

Presidential elections remain more than a year off, but the atmosphere has already heated up, with President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party jockeying for a candidate that can beat the PRI's likely candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, who has a large lead in the polls.

PRI chief Humberto Moreira, speaking in San Luis Potosi, lashed out at the arrest of Hank Rhon.

"As a party, we will not permit this kind of witch hunt, or acts of repression or intimidation, to begin," Moreira said.

The leader of the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party, Jesus Zambrano, echoed that he worries the arrest may signal Calderon's ruling party will seek to intimidate its political foes through such high-profile arrests.


U.S. diplomatic cable that refers to Jorge Hank Rhon


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