The Mexican soldiers stormed the casino mogul’s Tijuana estate, rousting him out of bed and allegedly recovering a cache of 88 weapons, among them a revolver engraved with his name: Jorge Hank Rhon. Still in his pajamas, Hank was whisked to Mexico City to be questioned by federal investigators.
The former Tijuana mayor, who claims to be a billionaire and is known for his eccentric tastes in exotic animals and tequila fermented with rattlesnake hides, has always dismissed allegations of links to drug traffickers and a notorious slaying. But the June 4 raid seemed to puncture his longstanding bubble of apparent impunity.
However, just two days after his arrest, authorities dropped organized-crime charges against him and flew him back to Baja California. He still faces weapons charges, but supporters expressed optimism that the case would be thrown out as soon as Tuesday, leaving Hank, 55, a free man again.
The whirlwind case has transfixed Mexico, morphing into a soap opera with political intrigue, intense media scrutiny and claims of injustice from Hank’s cancer-stricken wife. It has also done something few thought was possible: Cast the flamboyant impresario as a victim worthy of sympathy.
Bedecked in red shirts and yelling “Viva Hank!” thousands of protesters at a Tijuana rally last week demanded his release. Political allies, judges and attorneys marched side by side with casino dealers and poor people bused in from distant neighborhoods — a vivid display of Hank’s influence.
Far beyond Baja California, Hank’s arrest has become talk-show fodder for its possible effect on national politics. Most of the discussion skips past details of the criminal case to a more tantalizing question: Was the arrest aimed mainly at Hank’s party, the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, now seeking to retake power?
PRI leaders called it an act of political terrorism by President Felipe Calderon, whose conservative National Action Party, or PAN, is far behind the PRI in early polls for the 2012 elections.
“There is no witch hunt,” the new attorney general, Marisela Morales, told reporters last week.
But this is Mexico, where conspiracy theories blow about like tumbleweeds, and cynicism runs high when it comes to politics. In the days before Hank’s arrest, Mexico City buzzed with rumors that prosecutors were assembling criminal charges against one or more former state governors from the PRI.
To the protesters marching in Tijuana, there was little doubt who had called the military with the information leading to the raid. “The anonymous tip came from Los Pinos,” read one large banner, referring to the presidential residence in Mexico City.
Hank, who was mayor of Tijuana from 2004 to 2007, is rumored to be considering making a bid for governor of Baja California in 2013.
“Let’s not confuse ourselves, Jorge Hank Rhon … represents the PRI and is the emblem of the abuses, corruption and decadence of PRI-ism,” columnist Martin Moreno wrote in the daily Excelsior newspaper last week. “Was it a political blow?” Moreno asked. “Of course.”
Hank is the son of Carlos Hank Gonzalez, an early PRI party stalwart who left Hank a fortune that he used to expand his empire of off-track betting parlors and shopping centers. The younger Hank also spent freely to boost his populist appeal by showering poor residents with scholarships, toys and canned goods.
Hank owns Tijuana’s historic Agua Caliente racetrack, located on a sprawling showcase property that includes a zoo with 20,000 animals, a German-language school, a private bullring and a stadium for Tijuana’s beloved soccer team. Some of Hank’s 19 children live with him and his wife in a home tucked behind the racetrack.
Military officials said 40 rifles, 48 handguns and 9,250 ammunition rounds were seized in the raid on Hank’s high-walled compound.
Prosecutors say two of the handguns are linked to slayings, and the rifles are prohibited, military-grade weapons. But Hank’s attorneys have suggested that at least some of the weapons were planted, and that others were properly licensed and used only for protection of Hank’s legitimate business interests.
Federal agents returned two days after the raid to conduct a more extensive search. Hank’s telegenic wife, Maria Elvia Amaya de Hank, meanwhile, held news conferences to keep the media up to date. Wearing a silk scarf to cover hair loss from chemotherapy, and flanked by her son, who is a matador, she held up a letter written by her husband accusing authorities of violating his human rights.
The raid, for many, was long overdue.
Hank’s image darkened in 1988, when his chief of security killed a local columnist who had written critically of Hank. In the 1990s, he was investigated by U.S. authorities for alleged money laundering.
Suspicions were reinforced in 2009 when an alleged drug trafficker fled to Hank’s nearby casino after U.S. authorities alerted police that the man was at the U.S. Consulate trying to renew his passport, according to a diplomatic cable recently released by the website WikiLeaks.
“Hank is widely believed to have been a corrupt mayor and to be still involved in narco-trafficking.... He still enjoys wide influence in Tijuana, and state law enforcement officials appear unwilling to meddle on areas considered his turf,” read the cable.
Hank owns at least one home in the United States and his children attend school in La Jolla, Calif. His visa was revoked in 2009, according to Zeta, a weekly magazine in Tijuana. U.S. officials would not comment on visa issues.
With the cloud of criminality swirling around Hank for years, many observers questioned the timing of the government’s investigation.
The front-runner in the presidential campaign, Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI, is governor of the state of Mexico, where Hank’s father once governed and exemplified old-style boss rule under the PRI.
Analysts said the arrest may have been intended to smear the PRI before the 2012 presidential vote and a gubernatorial election in the state of Mexico next month. Targeting the Hank clan was a way to remind voters of the ways of the old PRI, whose 70-year rule was marked by graft and sometimes brutality, many commentators said.
Alfonso Zarate, a political analyst in Mexico City, said the PRI’s leadership, which has sought to project a modern image, was unlikely to risk much to defend Hank.
“They assume he is indefensible,” Zarate said in an interview.
At Hank’s racetrack, where greyhounds long ago replaced horses and the casino is filled with slot machines, gamblers embraced the political prosecution theory. To them, Hank deserves praise for fielding a successful soccer team and providing everyday attractions, such as the 50-cent pick-six bet.
“This is a great place for all of Tijuana,” said Juan Martinez, a 65-year-old mariachi. “We come here to have a little fun. Where else are we going to go?”
Marosi reported from Tijuana and Ellingwood from Mexico City.