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Mexico authorities return former mayor to Tijuana to face arms charges

Former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon returned to Baja California on Wednesday as a federal prisoner facing weapons charges.

Hank, a controversial casino magnate seen by many critics as an emblem of impunity in Mexico, and 10 other suspects were moved from the capital to a prison in the border city of Tecate after federal prosecutors charged them with possession of prohibited weapons.

The men were arrested during a military raid early Saturday at Hank’s vast compound in Tijuana, where authorities say soldiers found 88 weapons and more than 9,000 rounds of ammunition.

In announcing the charges, federal prosecutors said Wednesday that only 10 of the seized weapons were licensed. Most of the guns were of types whose use is limited by law to the armed forces without military permission.

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It is up to a federal judge in Tijuana to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to send Hank and the other suspects to trial.

Hank, 55, who owns the Agua Caliente dog-racing track and casino, was Tijuana’s mayor from 2004 to 2007. He inherited a fortune from his father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a former governor of the central state of Mexico and a stalwart in the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

The younger Hank, also a member of the PRI, has long been the subject of allegations of links to organized crime and drug trafficking. A former security aide was convicted in 1988 of killing an editor of Zeta, a muckraking newsweekly based in Tijuana.

Hank has a devoted following in Tijuana, where supporters say he has sought to help the poor. He was rumored to be considering running for another political post in Baja California, perhaps governor.

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Thousands of supporters held a rally calling for Hank’s release on Tuesday, hours before he was flown in handcuffs to a military air base in Tijuana.

“We are at ease because he’s here now,” said Manuel Lomeli Bolanos, a supporter and former Tijuana city attorney during Hank’s mayoral tenure.

The government’s case against Hank is weak, Lomeli said. “We are confident that he’ll be freed in less than one week if things turn out as we expect,” he said.

Hank is not the only Mexican politician facing new criminal charges. Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia, former governor of the southern state of Chiapas, was arrested late Tuesday on charges of siphoning $9 million in public funds before leaving office in 2006.

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Salazar is being investigated in connection with funds missing from nearly $1 billion in federal emergency aid sent for victims of devastating Hurricane Stan in 2005.

Mexico is rife with corruption and allegations of malfeasance often swirl around its powerful governors, but it is unusual to see one face prosecution.

Salazar, who left the PRI to run atop a multiparty coalition that joined the right and left, was detained by Chiapas authorities in Cancun, in Mexico’s Caribbean state of Quintana Roo.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard Marosi in San Diego contributed to this report.


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