Eccentric Candidate Faces Test in Tijuana
Late Billionaire's Son Laughs Off Dark Rumors
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page A16
TIJUANA, Mexico -- Jorge Hank Rhon remembers when he first knew that animals loved him.
He was about 3 and he, his brothers and cousins were playing rodeo with a German shepherd. One by one, they would climb on the dog's back and try to stay aboard as she ran. "Nobody could stay on top of the dog. But with me, she wouldn't run. She would just walk. She took care of me," said Hank, 48, who now has a private zoo with 20,000 animals. "I've got some animal blood in me. . . . I love to be with them. And I think they love to be with me."
Normally, "loved by animals" would not be at the top of a political résumé. But Hank, running for mayor of this border city of nearly 2 million people, is no ordinary politician. The son of billionaire kingmaker Carlos Hank Gonzalez, he is an iconoclast who collects lions and grizzly bears and has 18 children from three wives and a girlfriend. But beyond the exotic beasts and the rebel-with-a-trust-fund story, there are darker allegations about how Hank has run his life and whether he has used his vast privilege and influence in more nefarious ways.
Laughing out loud as his campaign bus rolled through Tijuana, Hank said his wealth, fame and nonconformist ways have made him a target for wild and untrue rumors, everything from working with drug dealers to killing journalists who bother him. "I've got my own life book," he said. "And as long as I follow the rules of my own little notebook, then I am fine."
Hank is an eccentric in the establishment world of his father, who was one of the most powerful Mexican political figures of the last 50 years until his death in 2001. He runs a horse and dog racetrack instead of a bank. He has had tigers and cheetahs padding around his house and pythons in his office. He has spent most of his life with his hair long, wearing boots made from exotic species and not caring what anybody thinks.
"They say I'm exotic. The truth is I don't hurt anyone by doing what I do. I have 600 horses. I have 400 dogs. I love boots and I have 400 pairs. So what? That doesn't cost as much as having a yacht," said Hank, who estimated his personal fortune at $500 million. "I have a private zoo. Yeah, so? Just being myself, people don't like it. They think I should be like them. Well, as long as I don't hurt anybody, why should I?"
That is currently a question for voters in this violence-racked city, just south of San Diego, where Hank is making his first run for office in the Aug. 1 elections. He is a serious contender; recent polls show him six to 13 points behind his opponent and gaining, despite the allegations that have swirled around him for years.
The most serious stem from April 1988, when local journalist Hector "El Gato" Felix Miranda was gunned down. Felix loved to skewer the rich and powerful, especially Hank, in his column in the weekly newspaper Zeta. So when two security guards from Hank's racetrack were convicted of killing Felix, suspicion fell on Hank. For 16 years, Zeta has run a full-page notice every week demanding that Hank explain why his bodyguards killed Felix.
Then on June 22, another Zeta editor, Francisco Ortiz Franco, was shot to death. Police arrested several reputed assassins for the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel and are questioning them. But Zeta, noting that Ortiz had recently become involved in a high-profile investigation into who ordered the Felix killing, ran a story saying Hank should be among the suspects in Ortiz's death. Jose Luis Vasconcelos, the nation's top organized crime prosecutor, also told reporters that Hank's possible involvement was one line of inquiry for investigation.
"Jorge Hank Rhon epitomizes a generation of people who believe that they are above the law; these kind of people are dangerous for Mexican democracy," said Sergio Aguayo, an academic and human rights specialist in Mexico City. "Has he been investigated properly enough to say that he is innocent? Or has he been given special treatment because of his name, money and relationships?"
Hank, his hazel eyes wide open during a recent interview, said he had nothing to do with either killing. And he said he believes that his guards were wrongly convicted. "I'm a law-abiding citizen. But I think the law made a mistake. I don't think they did it," Hank said.
For years, Hank's critics have called him everything from a money launderer for drug cartels to a trafficker of endangered species. They say none of it sticks because of his money and connections.
Hank, returning from a trip to Asia in 1995, was detained at the Mexico City airport when customs inspectors found his suitcases stuffed with what they said were illegal furs, ivory carvings and gems. Hank said he was cleared when his experts proved that the items were not illegal -- the supposed ivory was a carved cow bone, he said. Many critics still suspect that the charges disappeared because of Hank's family name.
Hank said he paid a $25,000 fine to the U.S. government in 1991 when a family member was caught driving a rare white tiger cub owned by Hank from the United States into Mexico. Hank said his staff had taken the cub to his sister's house in San Diego without his knowledge. The cat was legal in Mexico, he said, but taking it across the border, which is illegal, was "a huge mistake."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company