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Conservative leads in Baja Calif. vote

The PAN candidate for governor holds a sizable edge in early returns. He aims to extend his party's state control.

August 06, 2007|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — Conservative candidate Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan held a sizable lead over gambling tycoon Jorge Hank Rhon, based on early returns Sunday in Baja California's fractious gubernatorial election.

Osuna, with 51% of the vote, was well ahead of Hank, who had 43%, with 17% of the polling places counted, according to the Baja California Electoral Institute.

Osuna declared victory at a news conference, but representatives of Hank's campaign said the race was still too early to call.

"The real winners are the people of Baja California whose future is now assured," Osuna said.

Preliminary election results based on a count of 80% of the polling places were expected to be announced late Sunday night, according to electoral institute officials.

The election capped a fiercely fought and nasty campaign between Hank, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and Osuna, of the National Action Party, or PAN.

Each party blamed the other for the state's high crime rate and drug violence, and rival groups of supporters threw rocks and punches last month after a debate in Tijuana. Police agencies controlled by the rival parties have staged raids against their opponents' campaign operations.

A Hank victory would break the PAN's grip on power in Baja California, where the party won its first state election 18 years ago. Baja California, with 2.8 million residents, has become one of the fastest-growing states in Mexico, with a booming manufacturing and tourism economy. But it also has become a battleground for rival drug cartels vying for a key narcotics smuggling corridor into the United States.

"A Hank win would be an enormous symbolic and psychological blow to the PAN," said Victor Clark Alfaro, a border expert and director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.

Hank, 51, the head of a business empire that includes the Agua Caliente racetrack and a string of off-track betting parlors, promised to improve the state's roads and bring English-language instruction to public schools.

A former mayor of Tijuana, Hank played up his populist image in visits to poor communities, where he often hands out gifts and favors. He estimates he has given millions of dollars to needy people since he moved to Tijuana 22 years ago.

A flamboyant millionaire who owns an enormous private zoo, Hank has been married three times and has 19 children.

Osuna, another former Tijuana mayor, positioned himself as the family-values candidate by touting his long marriage. He portrayed Hank as a shady businessman showering voters with gifts in an attempt to distract them from his past. Hank's chief of security was convicted in the slaying of a Tijuana journalist in 1988, and U.S. authorities have investigated Hank for alleged links to drug traffickers.

The accusations against Hank reached a peak the week before the election when the Mexico City newspaper Reforma ran a story alleging that Tijuana municipal police under Hank's administration worked with the notorious Arellano Felix drug cartel.

Federal authorities last week also issued an arrest warrant for a former police chief under Hank, Genaro Carrillo Elvira, for allegedly freeing two officers under investigation for homicide.

Hank has accused the PAN of orchestrating the widely publicized stories as a last-minute attempt to smear him. He lashed back by running an ad showing the videotaped confession of a drug cartel assassin who accuses Baja state Atty. Gen. Antonio Martinez Luna of allegiance to the Sinaloa drug cartel.

At campaign events, Hank says organized crime has flourished since the PAN took over the state government. Hank, who raised police salaries in Tijuana and erected surveillance cameras across the city, said he would prove tougher on crime.

"The only thing the PAN has done in 18 years is make Baja California No. 1 in crime," he said.

PAN leaders said a Hank administration would be an open door for organized crime and would represent a danger for all of Mexico.

State and local elections also were held in Aguascalientes and Oaxaca.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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