Depending on your perspective, the arrest of former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon could be seen as a step forward for Mexico’s battle against organized crime, or a step backwards for the country’s political process.
Hank, a member of Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), was arrested with ten of his bodyguards by the Mexican Army on June 4, and charged with the illegal possession of 88 guns and more than 9,000 rounds of ammunition, the army said in a statement. The suspect was taken in a Hercules transport plane to Mexico City.
For some, the former mayor’s arrest comes two decades late. In 1988, two of Hank’s bodyguards were linked to the killing of Zeta magazine reporter Hector Felix Miranda. Zeta continues to publish a weekly notice questioning Hank over the murder.
To be sure, Hank is as notorious as the city of Tijuana itself. He has long been accused of working closely with the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), also known as the Tijuana Cartel, though no formal charges have ever successfully been leveled against him.
Still, his ostentatious lifestyle has made him a lightening rod for critics of Tijuana’s narco-business-political nexus. Hank, for example, has expensive taste in exotic animals including white tigers, which he keeps in his own zoos and sometimes at his racetrack, as witnessed by this reporter.
Hank’s father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, was also wealthy and politically powerful throughout the country. He left much of this to Jorge, who runs a chain of successful and ubiquitous casinos in Mexico; partially owns Banorte, one of the only domestically owned banks in Mexico following the 1994 peso collapse; and has various other business interests throughout the country.
Hank’s shady business interests and alleged connection to a murder made him a possible target for investigation for many different crimes including money laundering and murder, so the surprise arrest for the relatively petty crime of illegal possession of weapons has Tijuana wondering if there are political motivations for Hank’s untimely detention.
Hank’s soccer franchise, El Xolos, won Mexico’s national championship last month. This caused speculation that Hank could have his pick of positions in Baja California, including returning for Tijuana’s Municipal Presidency (Mexico’s term for the mayor’s office) or going for the Baja state governor’s office.
Hank’s political record was mixed. He was elected municipal president of Tijuana in 2004, where, among other things, he increased the police budget and paid for improved police infrastructure in the city. But crime, in particular murder and kidnapping, soared at the end of his term, as the Arellano Felix family struggled to maintain control of their splintering organization and battled the violent incursion of a rival, the Sinaloa Cartel.
However, Hank has influence beyond Baja state, and analysts like Professor Lorena Perez-Floriano of the Colegio de La Frontera Norte (COLEF) of Tijuana speculate that Hank’s arrest may have had more to do with the upcoming elections in Mexico State than his ambitions in Baja.
Perez-Floriano points out that Hank’s father once led the politically powerful Grupo Atlacomulco in Mexico State. And Hank’s popularity and charisma, in addition to his ownership of the national championship Xolos, gave him the ability to campaign for PRI candidates in that important state, which will hold local elections in early July.
Enter the National Action Party (Partido de Accion Nacional – PAN), currently the country’s ruling party led by Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon. The PAN is facing a bleak political forecast, especially as pressure mounts against Calderon to slow the carnage that has left close to 40,000 dead since he began his frontal assault on large criminal organizations in December 2006.
Mexico State, one of the country’s most populous and politically important states, may be the primer for presidential elections next year. The PAN tried and failed to establish a coalition there with the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica – PRD.
Desperate, the PAN moved to take Hank out of the equation by publicly humiliating him through arrest, says Perez-Floriano. This, in Mexico parlance, is known as “putting him in the freezer.”
The claim may have merit. Hank has had bodyguards and weapons for years. His wife said that none of the guns are illegal, as they were allowed for the security of the Caliente Race Track, which Hank owns.
There are precedents for this kind of alleged legal attack against a political rival. In 2009, authorities arrested ten Michoacan mayors of the opposition PRD; nine were later released for lack of evidence.
Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of California Irvine. He is currently doing field work in Tijuana, Mexico.