Jorge Hank Rhon is shown casting his ballot in 2007, when he ran unsuccessfully… (Luis Acosta, AFP / Getty…)
Reporting from San Diego and Mexico City — The Mexican government's efforts to prosecute former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon collapsed Tuesday after a federal judge tossed out weapons charges and another judge blocked authorities' last-ditch efforts to keep him under arrest on a new murder charge.
Hank, whose highly publicized arrest June 4 seemed to puncture the bubble of impunity that had long protected him, smiled as he walked away from detention at a hotel in Tijuana. Flanked by his attorneys, Hank's motorcade made its way back to his estate behind the historic Agua Caliente racetrack, which he owns, as supporters in cars honked their approval.
Hank's release represented a major setback to Mexico's attorney general's office, which has had several other high-profile corruption cases fall apart. Though the new accusation brought by Baja California state prosecutors is serious, many analysts believe that the local case is already unraveling because of police bumbling and Hank's wide influence in his home state.
"This has been a disaster for the federal government," analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio said on a Mexico City radio program, blaming the attorney general's office, the presidency and the army that raided Hank's estate. "What will happen is that nothing will happen. Here, everyone remains untouchable."
The frenzy of legal maneuverings that kept the city gripped with anticipation began before dawn when a federal judge ordered Hank's release from a Baja California prison, where he had been held since Mexican military forces found a cache of 88 guns at his property.
State authorities, instead of freeing him, whisked Hank away in a heavily armed convoy to state prosecutors' offices, where he was questioned about the 2009 killing of a woman romantically linked to his son. Prosecutors planned to hold Hank under arrest at a hotel on Tijuana's tough east side pending further investigation, but a local judge ordered his immediate release hours later.
Alleged links to drug traffickers have dogged Hank for years, but many in Mexico have been deeply suspicious about the timing of the government's moves. Hank is a member of an important, powerful clan in the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. He was detained as the PRI is poised to make a comeback in upcoming state elections as well as the presidency next year.
The attempt to hold Hank pending further investigation — a mechanism in Mexican law called the arraigo — only deepened suspicions that the prosecution of Hank is politically motivated, several analysts said.
"This is the clearest indication that, instead of conducting a serious investigation, they are flailing about trying to find justification for keeping this guy in jail," said John Mill Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review.
The federal judge, ruling on the weapons charges, said there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case after visiting the property and reviewing videotapes of the raid. She didn't elaborate on the decision, which is typical in Mexico's closed judicial system. But speculation was rampant on talk radio shows and newspaper website comments that the judge must have received a large bribe from Hank, a self-described billionaire who is one of Mexico's wealthiest men.
The federal attorney general's office said Tuesday that it would appeal the judge's decision.
State prosecutors now say Hank is a suspect in the fatal shooting of Angelica Munoz Cervantes, a 24-year-old woman described in Mexican news reports as either the girlfriend or wife of one of his sons. The Baja California attorney general, Rommel Moreno Manjarrez, said at a news conference that a witness told investigators that Hank gave the order to kill the woman. He did not provide a motive.
The new murder investigation was supported by critics of Hank who have watched with dread as he tries to parlay his vast fortune into political power. Hank, who was mayor of Tijuana from 2004 to 2007, is rumored to be considering a bid for governor of Baja California in 2013. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2007.
But his legions of supporters — among them employees of his business empire and poor shanty dwellers that he has long showered with gifts — denounced the new investigation, saying it is a blatant attempt to smear Hank and the PRI ahead of the presidential election.
Throughout his incarceration, supporters gathered wherever authorities took Hank, attempting to block his transfers, holding protest rallies and, at one point Tuesday, exchanging blows with police during a heated argument.
Hank will soon be showing his gratitude, possibly by opening the doors of the racetrack for one of his famous parties, said Manuel Lomeli Bolanos, the city attorney for Tijuana during Hank's mayoral tenure.
"I know that he's going to be thanking the people that support him … but he's tired and he's asked us to leave him alone with his family," Lomeli said.
Marosi reported from San Diego and Wilkinson from Mexico City.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.