By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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The dogs in his driveway are only a fraction of Hank’s canine collection. He has an estimated 400. He is also said to own 600 horses, some of which he recently donated to the city police to replace patrol cars in the more unwieldy of Tijuana’s poor hillside colonias. In 1989, one of Hank’s cheetahs escaped from the zoo and was hit by a pickup truck in Tijuana traffic. Before the police could set up a crime scene, the injured animal was furtively shuttled back to the compound by Hank’s zoo guards.
Hank has been open about his love for animals. “I’ve got some animal blood in me,” he told the Washington Post in 2004. In a 1997 interview with Frontline, he quipped, “I’m much more worried about the animals than the humans. So I take care of the animals. The humans, they can take care of themselves.” Hank has 18 children by four different women. Some of them have animal nicknames.
Suddenly, the dogs begin to bark. The steel gates open and a caravan of black sedans and Chevrolet Suburbans files out. The tinted windows prevent a good look inside, but Hank’s campaign sticker adorns each of the rear windshields. As they make their way down the dirt roads of the zoo into the rush of cars on Boulevard Agua Caliente, the gates close again, and the dogs go back to being the only dogs in Tijuana that don’t bark.
Being a man means surpassing the animal kingdom, to which our species belongs, and aspiring to perfection.
—Carlos Hank Gonzalez in a letter to his 18-year-old son
When Hank was a child in Santiago Tianguistenco, a small town in central Mexico, his father built him a zoo with ostriches, zebras, camels and hippopotamuses. The zoo was just for Hank, but it was built on the traditional land of the Matlazinca Indians, land that belonged to the town. Even back then, the line between private wealth and public interest was not one that the men of the Hank family paid much attention to.
Hank’s father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a politician and former schoolteacher nicknamed “The Professor,” was born into poverty and never brought home a salary that topped $200,000. Yet before he died in 2001, according to an estimate by Forbes, he had amassed a fortune of more than $1.3 billion. The most iconic “dinosaur” of Mexico’s most dinosaur-friendly political party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), Carlos Hank lived by his infamous motto, “A politician who is poor is a poor politician.” When he was mayor of Mexico City, he was known for contracting city construction projects to companies in which he held economic interests. As secretary of agriculture under disgraced President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, many believed he helped the president and his brother, Raul, shelter their illicit fortunes in foreign accounts.
“Hank does not just represent one of the wealthiest families in Mexico,” says Tijuana political scientist Tonatiuh Guillen, speaking by phone from his office at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “He represents a family synonymous with one of the most questionable means of getting wealthy — a classic double function, using public services to finance private wealth.”
Unlike his brother and father, though, Hank never made business or politics a top priority. Trained as an industrial engineer, he got involved with animal trafficking and gambling, grew his hair long, and wore a scruffy beard that looked good with his alligator-skin boots (of which he now owns more than 400 pairs). In the mid-’70s, Hank began buying giraffes and elephants, and by 1979 was co-owner of Mexico’s first major dolphin-trafficking enterprise, Convimar. According to a 1999 report by Mexican and Argentine mammal foundations, Convimar would capture dolphins in Cuba, then import them to animal parks in Mexico and South America or enlist them in traveling water-park entertainment shows.
In the ’80s, Hank teamed up with another son of the political elite, David Ibarra, to start Promotora Beta, an exotic pet company that specialized in buying manatees, puma cubs and large quantities of endangered birds that they would smuggle into the U.S. from Indonesia on private yachts. In 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service traced an illegal shipment of Indonesian cockatoos back to the Grupo Caliente coffers. Hank and Ibarra also bought Reino Aventura, a Mexico City wild animal park, and then paid $350,000 for Keiko, the killer whale Reino Aventura would later loan out to star in Free Willy. (Hank and Ibarra had by that time sold the park to Televisa.) Reino Aventura became embroiled in controversy when U.S. animal-rights activists accused the park of keeping Keiko in a tank too small for his size, full of his own excrement and with water that mixed chlorine with artificial salt. He was moved to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in 1995.
“My only vice is animals,” Hank once told Proceso magazine. And it’s the only vice he has even come close to being busted for. In 1991, he was directly linked to an illicit deal gone sour for an endangered gorilla, but was never formally charged. His most famous customs run-in came in 1995, when he was caught carrying a suitcase full of ivory tusks, pearl vests and coats made from the skins of endangered ocelots. The only other vice he’s admitted to is a particular brand of kleptomania: He likes stealing restaurant ashtrays.