Ex-Tijuana mayor taken by troops over gun cache

June 5, 2011 - 12:14 PM
Mexico Former Mayor Arrested

FILE - This June 13, 2006 file photo shows then Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon in his City Hall office during an interview with The Associated Press, in Tijuana, Mexico. A Mexican official says that Hank Rhon has been arrested on suspicion of illegal weapons possession. Rhon was mayor of Tijuana from 2004 to 2007. He is a self-proclaimed billionaire who owns a dog-track and chain of gambling parlors. (AP Photo/David Maung, File)

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Soldiers swept into the compound of flashy gambling tycoon Jorge Hank Rhon around 3:30 a.m., hustling him and his family from bed. They left with a cache of arms and the powerful Mexican politician in custody.

Saturday's raid was a bold strike against Tijuana's former mayor, who has prospered through decades of never-proven suspicion that his family's fortunes are linked to illegal drugs.

Troops found 40 rifles, 48 handguns, 9,298 bullets, 70 ammunition clips and a gas grenade, authorities said.

Mexican law limits ownership of large-caliber firearms to the military and requires licensing of most other guns. Violations can be punished by as long as 15 years in prison in some cases.

Hank Rhon, 55, was flown to Mexico City and officials said he was being investigated by an division specializing in organized crime. Ten others were also in custody with Hank Rhon.

His wife, Maria Elvia Amaya de Hank, said she, her husband and their children were violently awakened by soldiers who didn't show a search warrant. After arresting several of Hank Rhon's security guards, the soldiers told her they were recovering arms intended solely for military use, she said.

Amaya de Hank insisted all the weapons in the house had permits and demanded that her husband be released.

"I am fully confident that our authorities will quickly resolve the painful affair and do it with transparency, for my husband has been incommunicado until now," she said in a statement Saturday.

Amaya de Hank was hospitalized after the army raid, said her press secretary, Martina Martinez.

The federal Attorney General's Office said the troops staged the raid after three armed people detained near a hotel told them that weapons were hidden in the compound, which Hank Rhon's spokesman said includes the home, a casino, the ex-mayor's private zoo, a soccer complex and a school.

Heriberto Garcia, Baja California's human rights ombudsman, said Hank Rhon told him that armed men in hoods, some in civilian garb and others in military uniform, broke into the house and disarmed his security guards.

Hank Rhon was mayor of Tijuana from 2004 to 2007, but lost in a run for Baja California state governor that year. He is a self-proclaimed billionaire who owns a dog track, a nationwide chain of off-track betting parlors and the Tijuana soccer team that last month won advancement into Mexico's top soccer league.

His supporters charged that the arrest was an effort to tarnish his once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ahead of Mexico's 2012 presidential election and the 2013 vote for Baja California governor. Hank Rhon has been widely considered a potential candidate to try again to wrest the governor's office from President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party.

"They want to finish off his chances in the election," said Edgar Velasquez, a 23-year-old dance teacher who wore a red T-shirt from Hank Rhon's failed 2007 campaign and was among a crowd of about 200 protesters outside the federal attorney general's office after the arrest.

But the PRI's president, Humberto Moreira, said he saw no evidence of a strike against his party. "I don't think it is part of a witch hunt," he told reporters in the central city of San Luis Potosi.

Hank Rhon is the son of a legendary figure in the PRI, Carlos Hank Gonzalez. He served in Mexico's Cabinet, was governor of Mexico State and later was mayor of Mexico City. Hank Gonzalez died in 2001. He started his career as a school teacher and died a billionaire after a life in public service.

Hank Rhon's Tijuana-based gambling operations, which include a giant casino in the center of the city, have long drawn suspicion from U.S. regulators, though they have never charged him. Law enforcement agencies often see gambling as an easy way to launder illegal money, and Tijuana is a major corridor for drug traffic to the United States.

His elder brother, Carlos Hank Rhon, sold Texas-based Laredo National Bancshares in 2004, three years after he and another bank he controlled agreed to pay $40 million to settle a dispute with the U.S. Federal Reserve over ownership rules.