The Island of Jorge Hank Rhon
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.
“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?”
TicketsFri., Oct. 28, 7:00pm
UCLA Bruins Men's Soccer vs. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers Men's Soccer
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 7:00pm
CSUN Mens Soccer
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 7:00pm
Los Angeles Clippers v Utah JAzz - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsSun., Oct. 30, 1:30pm
“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.
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.
In the narco world, animals and drugs have a symbolic relationship. The late Tijuana cartel bosses Benjamin and Ramon Arellano-Félix went by their panda-like nicknames, “El Min” and “El Mon,” and their brother Javier, who is still at large, is known as “El Tigrillo.” And then there’s the animalization of the drugs themselves. A popular narcocorrido by Los Tucanes de Tijuana (the Toucans of Tijuana) is titled “Mis Tres Animals,” a reference to a common narco code: Parakeets are cocaine, roosters are marijuana, and goats are heroin. “I live off my three animals,” Los Tucanes sang, “who I love like my own life. With them, I earn my money and I don’t even have to buy them food. They are very fine animals: my parakeet, my rooster and my goat.”
It’s been suggested that in Hank’s world, the relationship between animals and drugs is as real as it is symbolic. The controversial 1999 White Tiger Report, a Department of Justice document named for Hank’s love of white tigers, linked Hank to the Tijuana cartel. “Jorge is more openly criminal than either his father or his brother,” the report read, “and is regarded as ruthless, dangerous, and prone to violence.” Though the report was denounced as inconclusive and not legally binding by Attorney General Janet Reno (and vehemently refuted by the Hank family), it nevertheless fed the long-whispered rumors of Hank’s ties to the international drug economy.
More than a decade earlier, reporter Héctor “Gato” Félix Miranda — a former friend of Hank’s — had begun looking into allegations of Hank’s shady affiliations and party-boy drug use in his popular columns for the leading Tijuana weekly Zeta. In 1988, he was gunned down. Hank’s bodyguard and a Caliente security guard were convicted of the murder. Hank was never formally charged, though every week since then Zeta editor J. Jesus Blancornelas, who co-founded the paper with Félix in 1980, has run a full-page ad accusing Hank of ordering the hit and demanding that the state governor bring criminal charges: “Jorge Hank Rhon: Por qué me asesino tu guardaespaldas Antonio Vera Palestina?” Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina assassinate me?
When you talk to people in Tijuana about Hank, you hear this word a lot. From housewives to taxi drivers, from painters to accountants, it echoes across the city, like it’s his first name. Supuestamente Hank. The proven facts are few. The rumors are endless, and often extreme, and nobody hesitates to share.
Supuestamente Hank kills one of his tigers every three months to eat its testicles and put tiger bile in his tequila.
Supuestamente Hank didn’t steal Maria Elvia Amaya from one of his best friends, he traded a hotel for her.
Supuestamente after the Arellano-Félix assassins knocked off Cardinal Posadas at the Guadalajara airport in 1995, it was not just a coincidence that Hank was also in first class on the same Aeromexico flight back to Tijuana.
Supuestamente Hank cross-breeds his animals and keeps a liontis, a lion crossed with a tiger, on the grounds of his zoo.
Supuestamente, anyone who looks at a white tiger for too long will end up dead.
In a way, it’s perfect. Tijuana is the most mythologized city in Mexico. La leyenda negra. The donkey shows. The 18-and-over party that never ends. Sodom and Gomorrah with U.S. parking lots. The happiest place on earth.
In that sense, Hank might be the ultimate Tijuana mayor, a hybrid of myth and reality ruling a city that relies on the misunderstanding between the two for its economic vitality. Who better than Hank to rule a city that has Juan Soldado, a convicted murderer and rapist, as its unofficial saint? Who better than a gambling boss and animal trafficker with alleged narco ties to run a city inextricably bound up in NAFTA economies of drugs and tourism?
California, after all, was born of terrifying myth in the daydreaming bowels of the European imagination. In the 15th century, European cartographers believed it was an island of dread and magic, full of elephants, tigers and single-breasted black Amazonian women armed with weapons of shimmering gold. In Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s 1510 epic The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandian, the island of California was imagined as a kind of “terrestrial paradise” populated by ferocious beasts and gangs of griffins, mythical creatures that combined the head of an eagle with the body and tail of a lion.
The current cartographic common sense is to point out just how wrong these early mapmakers who influenced Columbus and Cortes were, when in fact, they weren’t that wrong at all — California ended in a peninsula surrounded by water and tiny islands. Twenty-million years ago, water pried Mexico in two and forced an 800-mile long finger of land on its northwestern edge to break off from the hulking mainland. It hung on at the top, in the middle of the Sonoran desert, and kicked west out into one half of a dry and hilly wishbone that stretched for nearly 60 thousand square miles south.
The new, two-Floridas-long peninsula, a scraggly Italian boot missing its heel, was cradled by the sea, by the Pacific on one coast and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. Monsters lived on the Pacific side. There were hadrosaurs, those gigantic 23-ton duck-billed beasts with a thousand teeth and bones that made it to 50 feet, and ammonites, 100-pound snails with ram’s horn shells, and hyracotheriums, horses as small as the dogs that now rule Tijuana. They were joined by camel, bison and mammoths, until they all ended up as brittle bone in rock.
Now there are new monsters. The Pacific breeds them: Anarrhichthys ocellatus, wolf eels and wolf fish, and Mirounga angustirostris, four-ton elephant seals that are known for the look of anguish permanently written onto their faces. They cry “gelatinous tears” and are “infinitely sad,” Baja historian Fernando Jordan once wrote. “Seeing them causes two sensations: one of nausea, one of compassion.”
The seals huddle at Elephant Beach on the northern lip of Isla de Guadalupe, the peninsula’s missing knuckle that floats leagues west from Puerto Santa Catarina. Animals roamed the island until the end of the 19th century, when hunters emptied it for skins. Now it’s nothing but goats, cats and endlessly reproducing rats that pick the land bare. Biologists call the island “The Biological Cemetery.”
And yet some believe that all of Baja’s animal and marine life began farther north of Guadalupe, off the coast of Tijuana itself, on the Coronado Islands that lurk at the edge of the Pacific horizon like floating fossils of another era. According to local myth, the islands were once home to Cyclopes and dragons. Mermaids slithered off rocks, sirens sang to Spanish explorers looking for the magic kingdom of paradise.
In Esplandian, the island was ruled by a queen.
In Tijuana, the island is ruled by a king.
Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters.
—Francisco de Goya, Los Caprichos
When it came time for the people of Tijuana to choose a new mayor in 2004, neither the myths about Hank nor his supposedly criminal dealings could keep him out of office. At the polls, the few who cast their vote (roughly three out of every 10 Tijuanenses voted in the 2004 election) didn’t seem to care much about Hank’s past. They cared more about his promises for the future. Hank and the PRI party he inherited from his father squeezed a victory by Jorge Ramos, whose party, the PAN (National Action Party), had held power in Baja California since 1989. Hank filled his campaign with promises to remodel Tijuana in the image of San Diego, improve the living conditions in poor colonias, squash the drug cartels, pave roads and remodel schools and, most of all, to make Tijuana a safer city. One of his campaign billboards pictured Hank holding his hand steady above a caption that read “A Mi No Me Va a Temblar La Mano.” My hand will not shake.
Throughout the campaign, Hank argued that he wasn’t so different from Tijuana itself. Like the city, he had a bad reputation that needed cleaning up. Like the city, he was a victim of the media. Like the city, he only wanted to make himself better.
So he did what any renegade tycoon running for office in a city besieged by extreme poverty would do. He made his personal bank account public record. The logic was that if the people knew he was worth $500 million, they would think that he would never steal from them. The logic, twisted as it was, worked.
“The problem was that nobody talked about how he made all that money,” the poet Roberto Castillo Udiarte said one recent Saturday morning. “When I asked one guy why he was voting for him, he said, ‘He has giveaways, parties for Mother’s Day, bicycles. That’s what I need: someone who will give me something. Trust me, he will win, because people want someone who will give them something without taking from them.’ ”
It’s barely 10 a.m., and Castillo is plowing through micheladas and shrimp tacos on a balcony overlooking the sea in Playas de Tijuana. The tacos are wrapped in wax paper on a plastic table still wet from the morning fog, and a one-man norteño band starts to play “La Frontera Roja,” a classic from Los Toucanes. “The red border they call it,” sings the man in the cowboy hat and brass belt buckle while rattling off piercing drum rolls on a snare draped from his neck. “For all the blood that runs through it.” Just down the beach, the rusting border wall that once ran 50 yards into the Pacific is in the midst of a face-lift, leaving a stretch of sand that, for today at least, is the only part of the Tijuana–San Ysidro border that is not marked by a wall, a fence or ?a gate.
“When he won, the first photo published of Hank in Frontera showed him sitting right in front of a big portrait of himself, but with his face painted like a clown,” says Castillo. “It was absurd. Was that intentional? Is he laughing at us?”
Tijuana novelist and essayist Heriberto Yépez agrees with Castillo’s critiques of Hank, but views the mayor as part of a larger international trend. “Wilhelm Reich explained that Hitler came to power because the masses were afraid of freedom and Hitler assured them they would not have what they feared,” says Yépez, whose new novel, A.B.U.R.T.O, imagines the life of Mario Aburto Martínez, the Tijuana maquila worker who put a bullet in the head of PRI political candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994. The hit was once rumored to have been engineered by Hank’s father. “It’s the same reason Tijuana elected Hank, California elected Schwarzenegger, and the U.S. elected Bush. We live in an epoch of absolute mediocrity, of fleeing from freedom.”
Since taking office, Hank has been a mayor of unpredictable whim, using his enormous wealth to slowly turn all of Tijuana into an extension of his Caliente kingdom. First there was the matter of changing the color of the city taxis from green to red (the color favored by the PRI). Then there was the matter of installing 300 high-definition video security cameras throughout the city, echoing a similar move years before at the racetrack. Then there was the party he threw last year for Father’s Day. In a country where Mother’s Day is almost a national holiday, Hank brought 11 of his kids to the city’s first Father’s Day bash at the Palacio Municipal that included cell phone and television giveaways and appearances by dads dressed in Batman and SpongeBob costumes. The lion from the D.A.R.E. anti-drug campaign also made an appearance.
“Hank works the stereotype of the populist politician,” says Sergio Brown, a Tijuana video artist and educator. “He passes himself off like an urban Santa Claus.”
That image came into public question last summer when Hank cut down 15 trees in Tijuana’s oldest park in order to throw the city a 116th birthday party. The problem was that nobody from the city was invited to the red-carpet gala, only select members of the city’s elite who paid $300 for tickets (proceeds went to DIF, the national child-care organization led locally by Hank’s wife). There were performances by the Baja California Symphony Orchestra and La Banda Musicale della Polizia di Stato, an Italian police band that Hank flew in from Rome. The menu included salmon mousse and filet mignon. Six blocks of security kept the rest of Tijuana out. “Never has a commemorative for the city divided a city so much,” Juan Carlos Domínguez reported in Zeta.
Being festive is what this administration has been all about,” says Tonatiuh Guillen. “Whatever it is, the anniversary of Tijuana, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day. It’s been about parties, and then the controversies surrounding the parties. It’s the sense of a circus, the old corporate idea of offering the people some sort of entertainment and diversion from the service aspects that they actually need. Maybe they’re waiting for 2006 to do more important things but for now there’s just tremendous inertia, and a real poverty of public debate.”
Adds Yépez, “The city will have the same destiny as Hank’s racetrack. It’ll become a place for populist fiestas and, ultimately, a zoo for the PRI.”
Perhaps Hank’s strangest move was his decision last July to require Tijuana street vendors to wear folkloric outfits (much like the ones found on waitresses at Mexican restaurant chain Sanborn’s or in a “Mexico” exhibit at Epcot). Hank told the press he likes the outfits because they are “clean,” “colorful” and “happy-looking,” and will help tourists “feel Mexico.”
Unfortunately, the people wearing them go home to houses made of recycled U.S. garage doors where there’s no running water. Most of Tijuana gets the cruel joke: The outfits are an overt attempt to disguise the very poverty that Hank — who only months before hired Cirque du Soleil to perform at his birthday party — had so vehemently promised to cure.
But perhaps more than anything, the coerced fashion makeover showcases Hank’s NAFTA heart. A black-sheep offspring of the Salinas administration that signed on NAFTA’s dotted line, he is Tijuana’s first truly free-trade mayor, seeing his own city as an American would (Hank does, after all, own a house in Vail), a south-of-the-border Disneyland that must be safe enough for Americans to gamble, lose their virginity in massage parlors, buy cheap Viagra and Retin-A, and have their fat liposuctioned at $15-a-day “molding clinics,” yet exotic enough that they think they are still traveling back in time. Old Mexico, despite the fact that Tijuana is a manufacturing metropolis of more than 2 million people where thousands of job-seeking migrants arrive each day. Forget that the vendors are not selling Maya handicrafts, but pirated Tom Cruise DVDs and knock-off Gucci sunglasses.
“If you look at Tijuana as an outsider,” says Tijuana writer and blogger Rafa Saavedra, “then I suppose Hank could seem a very Tijuana mayor. But you have to question what Tijuana we are talking about. He represents a vision of Tijuana that does not exist, one that’s anchored to the past, one that reduces the city to a wannabe prototype of an idealized San Diego.”
For all that Hank has done poorly, there is one thing all agree he has done very well: Establish that he answers to no one. In Tijuana, Hank is the Law. At his election-day press conference, he declared that Mexican President Vicente Fox, who is a member of the PAN, is not “his” president. In a much-publicized slight last February, Hank begrudgingly greeted a visiting Fox at the Tijuana airport with a protocol handshake and hug. The welcome mat lasted four seconds. Fox went on a maquiladora tour with the mayor of Tecate instead.
Local law hasn’t mattered much either. In July, after arriving at the Tijuana airport from an out-of-town trip, Hank and his guards ignored a series of rudimentary police and customs stops and were chased by a fleet of 10 siren-blaring patrol cars all the way back to his Caliente compound. Hank shrugged it off, telling reporters he thought the police were being nice and offering him an escort home.
“Nothing ever happens to him,” says Guillen. “No questions are ever asked. He is never made responsible for his actions. These are symptoms of something bigger, a total loss of boundaries. He has no limits.”
The Zeta editorial offices are tucked into a quiet street just off the tree-lined traffic hustle of Boulevard Las Americas. No address is readily visible and there is no sign out front, just a man in dark sunglasses holding a large rifle in the afternoon shade of a pair of parked black Suburbans, their windows tinted as dark as night. Inside, the only decoration on the walls of the narrow, claustrophobic lobby — sealed off from the rest of the office by a thick pane of bulletproof glass and a secured door — is a trio of photographs of Zeta employees killed in the line of duty.
J. Jesus Blancornelas was almost one of them. In 1997, after a decade of writing probing articles about the Arellano-Félix drug cartel (capped off by his charge that the top Arellano hired gun was David Barron Corona, leader of San Diego’s Barrio Logan gang), Blancornelas’ car was sprayed with bullets. His driver was killed, and he was hit four times. Now he travels with a fleet of bodyguards, who were in full display last year at the L.A. Press Club when he was awarded the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism.
“If I were afraid I wouldn’t write,” says Blancornelas, in Zeta’s sterile meeting-room lounge. “I had thought about retiring but when I saw that Jorge Hank was going to be mayor I said to myself, ‘I have to go on.’ ”
The murder of Héctor Félix Miranda may be nearly 20 years old now, but it remains the driving force of Blancornelas’ mission at Zeta. Félix’s killers are in jail, but the man Blancornelas believes is ultimately responsible for ordering the assassination, Jorge Hank, is not only free, but is the city’s top elected official. For the editor, it is simply a matter of connecting the dots: the killers were Hank’s employees, they were paid with money traced back to Caliente, and many believe their families are still on Hank’s payroll.
Blancornelas, dressed in all black, leans forward. “If an animal has a duck beak, duck wings, duck feet and duck feathers then wouldn’t you say that it’s a duck?” he says, his mouth bending into a sly smile. “If you have very trustworthy bodyguards, the bodyguards are not going to act on their own and say ‘I’m going to kill so and so.’ The one thing bodyguards should never do is cause problems for their boss. During the investigations, it was known that there was money leaving the racetrack for these assassins who were on the run. That was proved. There is no doubt.”
The case was reopened a few years ago by the Inter-American Press Association in conjunction with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The first Zeta writer directly involved with the investigation was Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, who had also published a series of critical pieces about the Arellanos. Ortiz was shot to death in 2004. Hank was a prime suspect, but once again, never charged.
“Ortiz Franco was revising the document for the human-rights commission,” says Blancornelas. “He had all the elements to initiate a new investigation. So we established Hank’s involvement in his death as a hypothesis. In November one of Arellanos’ pistoleroswas detained, and he declared that it wasn’t the Arellano brothers but Hank. We still haven’t proven it, but it remains our leading hypothesis.”
Blancornelas moved to Tijuana in 1960, and of the long list of mayors he’s experienced, he says, none can touch the inefficiency and ineptitude of Hank’s administration. It’s an opinion he does not hesitate to broadcast to Zeta readers. A recent cover paid tribute to Hank’s first year in office with “The Worst Mayor in the History of Tijuana,” and a cover last month featured a photograph of Hank fumbling a stack of money under the headline “Inability, Deceit, and Fraud.”
“The difference with Jorge Hank is that he is not a politician,” says Blancornelas. “He had never had a political post before. Nor is he an administrator like some other mayors who emerged from the business world. Which means he’s not accustomed to dialogue, talks, negotiations or to listening to people who do know how to administer or lead. He’s accustomed only to ordering, to doing whatever he wants, what he thinks is what is supposed to be done.”
Key for Blancornelas is the close family friendship Hank inherited from his father with PRI boss and current Mexican presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo. Hank wanted to be mayor, Blancornelas believes, not out of political aspiration, but out of pure capricho, a personal whim he could pull off only because of his intimate connection to Madrazo’s power lines. “For a child of privilege like Hank,” says Blancornelas, “saying he wants to be mayor is like saying he wants the latest Mercedes-Benz. ‘I want to be mayor,’ and it happened.”
Despite his personal investments in exposing and criticizing Hank, Blancornelas sees the people of Tijuana themselves as Hank’s greatest victims. Since Hank took office, the city has suffered an unprecedented wave of violence, which in 2005 included a record number of public kidnappings of prominent businessmen, murders of police officers and, most famously, the October slaying of Father Luis Velazquez Romero, a local priest known previously only for his social work.
“This is the first time that Tijuana has become so riddled with danger and insecurity,” says Blancornelas, who has just published Estado de Alerta: Los periodistas y el gobierno frente al narcotrafico (State of Alert: Journalists and the Government In the Face of Drug Trafficking). “People are being detained, municipal police have been found to be murderers and criminals. There is more fear than ever.”
Indeed, just hours earlier, Tijuana’s murder rate was given an additional bump. Less than a mile from Hank’s Caliente racetrack, the pickup truck of Alfredo Cuentas Ochoa, the head of Baja California’s Luz y Fuerza electricity company, was riddled by AK-47 fire from a blue Surburban and a gold Ford Explorer after a failed kidnapping attempt. Cuentas was killed and his 17-year-old son seriously wounded. The day after images of Cuentas’ blood-splattered dashboard were shown on the evening news, friends of Cuentas staged a march to protest a city that has become, as one Zeta cover had put it, “Fuera de Control,” out of control.
Hank is sitting in the bleachers of his private bullring. It’s a hot Tijuana spring day, and he is wearing a black cowboy hat, black pants, his trademark red short sleeve, button-down Oxford, and a vest made of an animal skin that’s hard to make out. Eel? Crocodile? At his side is his youngest daughter, whose angel-white blonde hair and ruffled pink dress are aglow in the glare of the late afternoon sun. If it weren’t for the Tecate beer banner hanging below them, they could be emperor and child heir watching a gladiator and a lion, or king and princess in a Velazquez portrait of Phillip IV’s royal family.
All eyes are on the center of the ring. Hank’s 28-year-old stepson Alejandro Amaya — lean and lithe in his torero jacket — holds his red cape still as the snorting bull stares him down and grinds the dirt with his stamping hooves. The bull charges and Amaya plunges the sword he’s been hiding into the bull’s spine. You can hear the sound of steel moving through hair and flesh and then with an elegant upward flourish, the sword is quickly drawn out. Blood seeps onto the bull’s back and catches the sun in its gurgling ripples. The bull staggers, then drops with a crunching thud. Amaya thrusts his hands toward the bull in a dramatic pantomime, capping his conquest with a flash of bravado.
The bull is in the dirt now and the flies start their swarm. The eyes of the bleachers move up to Hank, who acknowledges the crowd with a proud wave. The kill is over. There is nothing left to see. The bleachers soon clear and Hank heads down to a lavish private party in full swing under a massive white tent. Over the music of a local band, the smell of perfume mixes with the clinking of glasses. The dead bull, soon to be a distant memory, is already starting its descent into the shaded soil of paradise.
Repeated requests to interview Jorge Hank Rhon for this story were unsuccessful. At press time, the most recent request remained unanswered.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.