Exuberant is the word that best describes the inaguration of the most modern casino in Latin America, the famous Agua Caliente Casino, that reopened its doors this past Friday April 5th, after being closed for a long time.
Visitors walk thru the parking lot, up to the door, where a Rolls Royce and red carpet greet the long line of gamblers coming from all walks of life, hoping to get a seat in one of the 10,300 machines the casino offers.
The casino has two levels, the first equipped with playing machines and a bingo room for over 700 people, it is expected a second level with luxurious restaurants and bars will be open to the public in the coming months.
Inside, the loud music seams to energize black tie waiters and ushers, who make their way thru the maze of lights and cigarette smoke in order to get colorful drinks into the gamblers hands.
In their path, they have to be careful not to trip over a semi-naked dancer or artist in stilts, models wearing red dresses imitating the 1920´s fashion.
In the middle of this exotic view is the owner, businessman, ex mayor of Tijuana and recent candidate for governor of the state, Jorge Hank Rhon, who is wearing a long salt-pepper beard and sweat stained shirt.
The property has been in his family since 1916.
Hank’s recent 25-million dollar investment has transformed the old Casino into one of the biggest and most high tec in Latin America. He says with a flourish as he strolls across the new red carpet, “It’ll provide 700 jobs for Tijuana.”
He is a controversial character, whose latest scandal happened just a few weeks back, when seven of his bodyguards, including his head of security Jorge Vera Ayala, where arrested by state officials for shooting bullets in the air and lost their gun licenses as a result.
Vera, 24 years old, is the son of Antonio Vera Palestina, who is in jail for the murder of journalist Héctor Félix Miranda. Many journalists and non-profits attribute Hank Rhon as the person who ordered the crime.
Doors open, to what?
New legislation legalizing gambling in Mexico has yet to be approved by congress, yet at least a dozen companies operate this kinds of businesses with permits granted in 2005 with support of then Secretary of State, Santiago Creel Miranda.
The State Department has refused to grant more permits since Creel left his post in June 2005, and several of the companies wishing to keep or get those permits have filed lawsuits.
State Department statistics say there are at least 165 gambling houses and 142 bingo rooms across the country, but files another 194 centers under the category of “about to start operations.”
Each permit, like the one obtained by Hank to reopen the casino, allows the company to establish an “unlimited” number of gambling houses.
But several sectors in Mexico severely question the true benefits of allowing gambling and casinos to operate in the country.
Amongst them is the Institute of Citizen Studies about Insecurity (ICESI), a non-profit that works with socioeconomic scientists from Universidad Autó-noma de México (UNAM), Tecnológico de Monterrey and the National Bussiness Council.
ICECI did a study about the pros and cons of allowing gaming in Mexico and found that benefits are very limited and revenues are scarce, while the possibilities of social harm are clear.
According to ICECI, the existence of gambling is a crime factor, as it takes just five years to create a gambling addicted population.
“This gambling-addicted population is the main source of revenue for the casino, these people feed their need to play by pawning what they own, stealing, borrowing and cheating family and friends” the study states.
Tijuana residents are not worried by statistics or facts, future or consequences of the reopening of a gambling house that overlooks the whole city like a magnet.
Alcohol and loud music make the floor tremble and for tonight, the first night of the casino in Tijuana, thousands of people only care about one type of certainty: winning.