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The Island of Jorge Hank Rhon 

They call him a criminal, a murderer and the worst mayor in Tijuana history. In search of Genghis Hank.

Wednesday, Feb 15 2006
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His is the house of pain. His is the hand that makes. His is the hand that wounds. His is the hand that heals.

—H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau

There is an old Tijuana joke about a group of dogs hanging out below the border. All of them are locals, except for one, who comes south every day to visit from La Jolla, the precious coastal enclave north of San Diego where lawns are green even in the driest of droughts. The La Jolla dog tells the Tijuana dogs how good he has it. He brags about running around in a big back yard full of beautiful flowers and freshly cut grass, about how his owners feed him scraps of filet mignon and grilled salmon, and about how at night, they let him jump up on the bed with them and cuddle into the morning on sheets of 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton. The Tijuana dogs are incredulous.

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“If you have it so good up there,” they ask the La Jolla dog, “then why do you always come down here to be with us in Tijuana?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the La Jolla dog replies. “I come to Tijuana to bark.”

Dogs bark everywhere in Tijuana. On busy stoplight corners next to kids juggling sticks orange with ragged fire, at the entrance to muffler shops chained to metal posts, beneath an oil-soaked Chevy chassis abandoned in a junkyard, along any road where they trot, in gangly packs of misshapen mongrels, until they’re crushed or abducted or shoved into a dark box in somebody’s frontyard garage. In Tijuana, there are the backfires of cars, the moan of dying brakes, the whistles of taqueros, the songs of coin-craving troubadours armed with toy accordions, and there are the barks of the dogs.

Yet none of these dogs are barking. There must be 20 of them. Most are lying down, some are sleeping, some are playing, all flopping paws and biting snouts. These are not street dogs. They are pets on a gated, private driveway that leads to an imposing mansion on a tree-lined hillside above downtown Tijuana. The dogs and the gate are there either to protect the house from the world outside, or to protect the world outside from what’s inside the house.

The house belongs to Jorge Hank Rhon, the 48-year-old presidente municipal, or mayor, of Tijuana, who also happens to be one of the richest and most scandal-laden men in Mexico. Besides owning Tijuana’s Pueblo Amigo hotel and shopping center, Hank (his paternal last name) heads up Grupo Caliente, a gambling and gaming empire encompassing the Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana and a string of off-track “sports book” betting parlors throughout Mexico. He is also one of Mexico’s leading traffickers in exotic and endangered animals.

Hank lives in the house with his third wife, Maria Elvia Amaya de Hank, a fixture of Tijuana’s social elite. Some have nicknamed him Genghis Hank, and her Hankita Péron.

The house is perched at the top of Hank’s private compound. Below lies the Agua Caliente racetrack, which Hank took over in the ’80s, long after its Prohibition-era heyday as a south-of-the-border Hollywood escape. Between the track and the residence lies Hank’s bucolic personal playground, which includes a bullring and a sprawling private zoo that houses an estimated 20,000 animals. Many of them are caged down in the track’s infield, where they go unnoticed by the Tijuana locals and Tecate-clutching gringos who shout numbers like desperate pleas at the sprinting greyhounds. Once a year, Hank hosts a special race and lets his private stash of miniature monkeys ride the dogs like jockeys.

The palatial entrance to Agua Caliente is framed by cages of groggy bears and lethargic tigers that reek of feces and stale urine. On a Saturday afternoon last year, one of the bears was locked in a paralytic trance, his drooling mouth pressed up against the bars, his paws robotically lifting up and down in a series of repeating ticks that kept him dancing in place. His eyes had stopped blinking.

Next to the track’s main building is what the groundskeepers call “la capilla,” the chapel. Inside, there is nothing to worship — just dank, humid air hovering over a tiled floor, terrariums housing rare birds and a catatonic leopard that paces back and forth. A statue of a resting greyhound watches over the room.

The grounds of the zoo continue up the hill with an extensive aviary and a series of stables where camels and llamas walk in circles. There are also lions, jaguars, cougars, grizzly bears, ostriches and white Bengal tigers, Hank’s most controversial animal. Only 500 white tigers exist in the world and Hank owns three of them. In 1991, a white tiger cub born in Hank’s zoo was found by customs agents in the back seat of a Mercedes-Benz on its way back into Tijuana from the U.S., where it had made an appearance at a birthday party for Hank’s niece. Hank was not in the car and claimed no knowledge of the visit, but was still hit with a $25,000 fine for smuggling and possessing an endangered species.

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