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Scion Seeks Out Poor in Race for Tijuana Post

Jorge Hank Rhon, a possible suspect in a journalist's death, deploys wealth to win support in mayoral run.

July 06, 2004|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — Jorge Hank Rhon, scion of one of Mexico's largest fortunes, is throwing a fiesta for the shack dwellers of Colonia Del Rio, a cliff-side shantytown that spills into a canyon just beyond where he stands in his alligator-skin boots.

While Hank shares tacos with dozens of residents, no one mentions that authorities have named him as one of the possible suspects they are investigating in last month's killing of a crusading political journalist. Two of Hank's bodyguards were convicted in the 1988 ambush murder of another journalist from the same weekly, Zeta.

Instead, people talk about why they want Hank to win his race to become mayor of this sprawling border city.

At Colonia Del Rio, residents praise him for having recently built a concrete staircase that replaced a mud-caked ladder of rubber tires they once had to climb to reach the area's only road.

Hank's supporters love him for such gifts, which he has showered on the city's poor neighborhoods, and for his pledge to make Tijuana as clean and livable as San Diego, the gleaming metropolis 15 miles north.

"He has helped," said Elvira Villaman Parra, who once dislocated her hip falling off the tire ladder on her way to work. "When he's mayor, he'll help more."

That sort of support has propelled Hank's candidacy forward. According to one recent poll, he is about 6 percentage points behind the front-runner, Jorge Ramos.

But Hank, the clean-cut candidate dressed in khakis and a red shirt, is unrecognizable to many longtime residents. To them, he is better known as a longhaired, eccentric millionaire who has fathered 18 children by four women and collected about 20,000 animals in his private zoo.

Some opponents say Hank trades on his image as a benevolent mafioso, a person who might bring peace to the city's rival drug gangs and end the bloodshed that makes Tijuana one of Mexico's most dangerous cities.

Voters "believe he has power with the mafia, or can bring agreement between the narcos and solve the problems of violence in Tijuana -- it's terrible," said Benedicto Ruiz Vargas, a political analyst at Tijuana's Ibero-American University.

Hank, a ruddy-cheeked man with a smooth baritone voice, responds to the accusations and political punches with avuncular charm. No, he says, he doesn't consider himself the Don Corleone of Tijuana, as one Mexican journalist called him.

"I will never profit from human pain," Hank, 48, said in his slightly accented English during an interview at Colonia Del Rio. "These accusations don't worry me. I know who I am, and I know what I do, and I'm very happy with my life."

Authorities have said they have no evidence to link Hank to the killings.

Hank says he wants to break the long line of ineffective politicians who have failed to take advantage of Tijuana's location to tap some of the United States' riches. He promises to fire corrupt cops and improve security in an effort to boost tourism.

"There's lots of mugging, robbing, raping, so tourists don't come," said Hank, who lives on the sprawling grounds of the racetrack and also owns a home in Vail, Colo. "It's stupid not to give them all the facilities and security.... [Tijuana] can be as good as San Diego."

Hank's entry into politics marks an attempt to revive one of Mexico's great political legacies. His father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, was mayor of Mexico City and a pillar of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century. During his years in politics, the elder Hank also built a business empire totaling nearly $1 billion at the time of his death in 2001.

"A politician who's poor is a poor politician" was a motto often cited by the elder Hank.

The younger Hank rejects criticism that he is trying to revive a corrupt style of Mexican politicking. His strong showing in the mayoral race reflects residents' dissatisfaction with the National Action Party, which has ruled Tijuana for more than a decade, he said.

Hank moved to Tijuana in 1985 and has spent most of his time managing a business empire that includes betting parlors, hotels, shopping centers and a concession to run the racetrack. He estimates his worth at $500 million.

The racetrack showcases Hank's love of animals. Spectators walk past grizzly bears, exotic birds and a leopard on their way into the stands. Beyond the track is the private zoo -- open by appointment only -- that houses Siberian tigers, lions, pythons and giraffes, among other animals.

Hank downplays the size of his collection. "Any sultan or guy in Africa has a zoo," he said.

His problems with the law began in 1995, when he was arrested at a Mexico City airport for failing to declare ivory, ocelot furs and statues encrusted with precious stones that agents found in his luggage.

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