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 resume. 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."
In 1985, Hank bought the landmark Caliente racetrack, where Seabiscuit once ran. Horse racing stopped there five years later. Hank said Reagan-era tax changes killed the business by making it unattractive for U.S. horses to race in Mexico; his critics said Hank mismanaged the track. Caliente is now used for greyhound racing and off-track betting.
Hank's private zoo is in the track's infield, where he keeps lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougars, wolves, grizzly bears and ostriches. Hank said some of the lions were sent by government authorities who discovered them abandoned on the ranches of drug traffickers.
U.S. officials said Hank's ownership of businesses such as Caliente, shopping malls and sports betting parlors across Latin America has been scrutinized for years by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. Officials said they suspect, but have never proved, that he launders money for the Arellano Felix drug cartel.
"He has led a very charmed life," said Michael Vigil, who retired recently as head of the DEA's San Diego office, which has followed Hank's activities for years.
Hank said he had never met any of the Arellano Felixes or any other drug traffickers. Hank, who has his thick black hair cut short for the campaign, said his only vice is stealing and collecting ashtrays from hotels and restaurants. "I do like ashtrays," he said.
Hank could not be more different from his opponent, Jorge Ramos, 35, a clean-cut former City Council member with 14 years of experience in Tijuana government, who wears the uniform of the earnest: a blue oxford cloth dress shirt and perfectly pressed khakis.
"My city is struggling with a bad image, and this makes it worse," Ramos said. "I am running against a myth. He has spent three months trying to clarify his past: 'I didn't kill, I didn't rob.' His past is chasing him, and it will always chase him. That's one thing about money: You can't buy the past."
The race between Ramos and Hank also symbolizes a larger struggle in Mexico, between President Vicente Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until Fox took office in 2000. Tijuana was one of the first places where the PRI's grip started slipping, and the PAN has held the mayor's office here since 1989. It is a now a key battleground in the PRI's efforts to regain power.
Hank's father was an emblem of the PRI's glory years. He died with a fortune estimated at $1.3 billion, despite a lifetime of modestly paid public jobs, including mayor of Mexico City. His life was widely seen as the PRI dream: public service that somehow results in great personal wealth, summed up by his infamous adage, often cited here as the pinnacle of PRI arrogance: "A politician who is poor is a poor politician."
Hank bristled at the suggestion that his father was corrupt. "That is the biggest lie," he said, arguing that his father made his fortune, without government help, in trucking and other businesses. He quickly dispatched an aide to fetch a 452-page book of his father's recollections, along with songs and poems lionizing him. It also includes a letter he wrote to Hank on his 18th birthday, telling him that "being a man means surpassing the animal kingdom, to which our species belongs, and aspiring to perfection."
On the streets here, several people interviewed said they were afraid to be identified by name criticizing perhaps the most powerful man in the city. One who was not, Maria Guadalupe Perez Gonzalez, 38, a teacher, said she didn't like Hank because, "I'm tired of corrupt people. . . . He's going to bring us into the same pothole that PRI put us in."
Hank said he wants to be mayor because, "I wouldn't be able to sleep if I were offered to do this and just said no because I'm really comfortable at home. And I do think I'm going to make a much better city for my kids."
In several recent campaign stops in poor neighborhoods of Tijuana, Hank walked through the mud in garbage-filled barrios in his expensive ostrich-skin boots and spoke under his campaign banners that said: "More pavement for more neighborhoods." He had trouble keeping his audience's attention with his sleepy baritone, which made him sound like a late-night host on a classical music radio station. At one point, he asked over all the distracted murmuring: "Do you want to talk, or do you want to hear me talk?"
He did get people's attention recently when he said his favorite animal is "woman." Women were outraged, but Hank said he didn't understand why. He said it was just a scientific fact: Humans are animals, and he likes women more than men.
But his often-repeated message of "returning happiness to our streets" resounded with many who came out to meet him. "We trust him," said Martina Figueroa Rico. "The rumors are all lies. He likes the poor. And he's not going to steal from the people. He doesn't need the money."