July 27, 2007

Baja California News

Baja’s Next Governor?

On August 5, Jorge Hank Rhon could be elected the next governor of Baja California. Now purportedly a billionaire, the gaming magnate is one of the most controversial politicians on the Mexican political scene today. Hank Rhon is the 51-year-old son of the late, legendary godfather of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Carlos “El Profesor” Hank Gonzalez, whose now-classic quote, “A poor politician is a bad politician,” has became a cliché of Mexican politics.

A collector of exotic animals, Hank is notorious for throwing lavish parties, rewarding allies generously and wearing flashy clothes. Perhaps in jest, Hank recently told a pair of journalists that a desired piece of clothing would be a vest made from a donkey’s penis.

Once widely vilified for calling women his “favorite” animal, Hank’s name has been linked to organized criminal activity, including the murders of two Baja California journalists, but the PRI’s gubernatorial hopeful has never been convicted of a serious crime.

Born in Mexico state, Hank is the owner of Tijuana’s old Agua Caliente horse racing track, hotel and real estate properties and the Grupo Caliente gambling establishments.

In 1985, “El Profesor” handed over the Agua Caliente concession to his young son. The late Tijuana journalist and Zeta newspaper publisher Jesus Blancornelas once described how Hank made a splash in the burgeoning border city:

“He was a friendly young man, an innovator who was attempting to modify the operation of the Agua Caliente race track. He helped a lot of people, many people, and sponsored generations of students. He became such a popular figure that even in those days it occurred to him to consider being a serious aspirant for mayor of Tijuana.”

It wouldn’t be long, however, before Hank ran into hassles involving Agua Caliente and its employees. From 1987 to 1990, Hank confronted labor conflicts at the race track that threatened to end in violence. Neighbors complained of improperly dumped trash and accumulating mounds of horse excrement. Questions arose over the legality of subdividing the property.

Over the years, Hank’s security detail drew individuals once associated with Mexico City police officials Arturo “El Negro” Durazo and Francisco Sahagun Baca, both of whom were linked to the torture and forced disappearance of suspected guerrillas and dissidents during the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1988, three of Hank’s bodyguards were implicated in the murder of Tijuana journalist and Zeta newspaper co-founder Hector “Gato” Felix, who was once on friendly terms with Hank but turned increasingly critical of the businessman in his last columns. Insinuating about alleged money- laundering at the Agua Caliente track, Felix had also written critically about Hank associates like Alberto Murguia.

One of Hank’s bodyguards, Antonio Vera Palestina, is serving a prison term for Felix’s murder; another suspect in the crime, Emigidio Nevarez, was executed gangland-style in 1992. Jesus Blancornelas considered Hank the mastermind of his colleague’s murder, but in a press conference Hank denied any involvement in the crime.

“I’d say that Hector lived off gossip, not journalism, of making jokes that were a little heavy..,” Hank said.

Blancornelas maintained that “all roads lead to Hank.” He contended that Hank’s powerful father, who served as a high official in different federal and state PRI administrations, attempted to bribe the journalist to drop the Felix investigation.

In 2006, Hank’s chief bodyguard, Jorge Vera, the son of convicted Felix killer Antonio Vera, was questioned by Baja California state law enforcement officials probing the murder of Tijuana municipal police official Antonio Cabadas. Because of his testimony, Vera was supposedly threatened over police-band radio frequencies. In January 2007, Vera’s armored vehicle repelled bullets fired at the security man in an assassination attempt near Hank’s Tijuana home. Reportedly, Vera had just dropped off Hank after the outgoing mayor returned from a trip to Cuba. A former Hank bodyguard and ex-Tijuana policeman, Enrique Fuerte Mateos, wasn’t as lucky as Vera. In 2005, Fuerte was found murdered gangland-style in Tijuana.

Hank had other brushes with the law in 1994 and 1995. Ever the risk-taker, he unveiled Las Vegas-style machines at his gaming Tijuana enterprises. The federal Ministry of Interior considered the one-armed bandits illegal under Mexican law and forced Hank to withdraw the machines. The following year, Hank was detained for 11 hours in a Mexico City jail for allegedly attempting to smuggle contraband and exotic animal skins into the country. Reportedly, he once tried to obtain a gorilla.

Despite multiple controversies, Hank’s business empire expanded in Mexico, Central America, South America, and Europe. In Mexico, Hank’s biggest competitor is the Televisa entertainment network, which was awarded 130 gaming permits by the federal Interior Ministry in 2005, a year when the department was headed by then-presidential hopeful Santiago Creel. Now the coordinator of the National Action Party (PAN) fraction of the Mexican Senate, Creel is openly backing the PAN candidate in the current Baja California governor’s contest.

Within the national PRI, Hank is close to politicians such as former presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo and Ciudad Juarez Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguia.

As Tijuana Mayor

In 2004, Hank finally ran for mayor of Tijuana on the PRI ticket. As the campaign unfolded, an official review of the 1988 Felix murder investigation prompted by an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommendation was underway. Sitting on the Felix task force were the Inter- American Press Society, Mexican law enforcement authorities and Zeta editor Francisco Ortiz.

Initially representing the Baja California state attorney general’s involvement in the review was Francisco Castro Trenti, the brother of Hank mayoral campaign coordinator Fernando Castro Trenti. The new investigation had the potential of exposing possible contradictory testimony earlier made by Hank. Once the relationship between the Castro brothers was made public, Francisco Castro turned the matter over to Maria Teresa Valadez, a Baja California assistant state prosecutor.

In June 2004, as the Felix homicide review was picking up steam, Zeta’s Francisco Ortiz was murdered. Again, Blancornelas cited Hank as a possible suspect in the latest attack against a Zeta journalist. Other suspects in the murder included members of San Diego’s Barrio Logan gang, the Gulf Cartel and the Arellano Felix cartel. Mexican law enforcement officials have pinned the Ortiz crime on Arellano Felix syndicate gunmen.

Hank won the 2004 mayoral election, serving slightly more than two years in office before receiving a leave of absence to run for governor. Hank’s term was characterized by road construction, administrative shake-ups, salary increases for high officials, expensive Christmas season parties, and the appointment of young women with dubious professional qualifications but noticeable physical attributes as municipal functionaries.

“We’re not bringing in fat or ugly women, alright?” quipped an unidentified municipal official to Proceso magazine in 2005.

On the policy front, the Hank administration legalized massage parlor sex, stressed the rehabilitation of drug addicts, helped HIV-infected children, and deployed a mounted police force that was trained at the old Agua Caliente track. Hank proposed that a casino permit be granted to the annual Tijuana fair held every September. At Freedom of Expression Day celebrations in 2005 and 2006, journalists were awarded hotel, spa and restaurant passes, electronic gadgets and properties. Coinciding in office, Hank and “Teto” Murguia proclaimed Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez as “sister cities.”

Hank’s stint as mayor coincided with increasing numbers of narco-executions and kid-nappings, including of Hank associates. Early this year, the Mexican army disarmed Tijuana’s municipal police force, which was accused of widespread collusion with drug traffickers. Hank declared that the operation was carried out without his prior knowledge.

Questioned about the violence overwhelming his city, Hank offered a sociological analysis.

“We’re the only municipality that recognizes the existence of drug addiction,” he told an interviewer. “We have 100,000 sick people that don’t want to work and only think about their next dose. Besides, we are a receptor of a big migrant population and neighbors of one of the most drug- consuming states of the United States.”

Occasionally, Hank-related properties have been the scenes of violent incidents. Last May, for instance, a suspected explosive device was discovered outside Hank’s Tijuana home. In late 2005, a 15-year-old girl, Sara Benazir Chagoya was tossed hand-cuffed from a moving vehicle in front of the Pueblo Amigo shopping center associated with Hank and once reportedly frequented by the Arellano Felix brothers of the Tijuana drug cartel. The high school student died from her injuries, and her parent’s quest for justice, which initially pointed to the son of a judge as the possible murderer, has been fruitless.

A Heated Gubernatorial Campaign

Hank kicked off his 2007 gubernatorial run with a Roman Catholic mass. Tijuana police officers were soon spotted serving as the candidate’s bodyguards. But Hank’s flashy political foray was almost terminated when a state election court ruled last month that his candidacy violated a Baja California law that prohibited elected officials from running for another office while still in the original post. In early July, a federal election court reversed the lower court’s decision on appeal and permitted Hank to resume campaigning. The decision is sparking criticism that a heavy-handed federal government has trampled a state constitution and impeded the ability of lawmakers to regulate elections.

Although he is competing against four other candidates, Hank’s main campaign rival is another former Tijuana mayor, Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan of the PAN-PANAL alliance.

Until now, Hank’s campaign has been defined by a fusion of pesos, populism and public relations crafted by masterful Mexico City image-maker Carlos Alazrazi. If elected governor, Hank pledges to municipalize Tijuana’s water, privatize energy production (a federal decision) and expand the network of evening day-care centers founded by his wife, Maria Elvia Amaya.

“I don’t have any commitments other than reading the little book that tells what must be done to be governor..,” Hank said of his political philosophy earlier this year. “I am an enemy of the line that you only help your friends; you have to help everyone. You give (people) that have little the possibility of having a little more and you help those that have a lot have a lot more.”

As the August 5 election draws near, acerbic rhetoric, campaign irregularities and bouts of violence are marring the contest. Like the good old days of Mexican politics, grupos de choque (goon squads) and warehouses pregnant with vote-buying goodies are surfacing here and there. On Wednesday, July 18, Hank and Osuna supporters violently clashed outside a Tijuana candidates’ debate, leaving 12 people injured.

Tijuana journalist Maria Asuncion Gutierrez denounced that she was retained against her will for 15 minutes in a municipal government warehouse July 20 by two men who confronted her while she was observing and filming a supply pick-up that could have been destined for political purposes.

Running in a state where President Felipe Calderon’s PAN has held the governor’s office for the last 18 years, Osuna is confident that he will beat Hank. Still, the dealer’s hand might well favor Hank this round. The conservative PAN has generally fared badly this year in local elections, losing races in Yucatan, Durango and Chihuahua, and the anti-PAN trend could benefit Hank in Baja California. A low voter turn-out could also boost’s Hank’s PRI, which is adept at turning out its troops in even in the most publicly shunned contests.

The prospects of a Hank triumph are drawing sharp remarks from some Mexican commentators. Far from being a Panista, prominent Mexican writer and cultural critic Carlos Monsivais sarcastically warned that a Hank victory could mean that “the cages of (Hank’s) preferred animals” will be filled with women.

“Mr. Hank already describes what his government program will be, when he says he wants to have a vest made from a donkey’s penis,” Monsivais said.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur a U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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