TIJUANA, Mexico – Former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, one of Mexico's most flamboyant businessmen and politicians, has been detained on suspicion of illegal weapons possession, the federal Attorney General's Office announced Saturday.
Mexican troops raided Hank Rhon's Tijuana house and found 88 guns, officials said. The Attorney General's Office said Hank Rhon and 10 other people were detained.
Mexican law limits ownership of large 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's office did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Federal officials said Hank Rhon was taken to the local office of the Attorney General's Office. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
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 private zoo at one point had 20,000 animals, five times more than the famous San Diego Zoo across the border.
The announcement from the Attorney General's Office said soldiers responding to a citizen complaint caught three armed people near a hotel and they acknowledged that weapons were hidden in a house in the Colonia Hipodromo neighborhood, leading troops to search it.
In addition to 40 rifles and 48 handguns, the Attorney General's Office said troops found 9,298 cartridges, 70 ammunition clips and a gas grenade.
As rumors of the detention spread, dozens of Hank Rhon's supporters gathered at the prosecutor's office to demand his release.
Hank Rhon is the son of a legendary figure in the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, 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. 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.
Eric Olson, senior associate of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, said the arrest is suprising because Hank Rhon and his family have survived decades of suspicion.
"One begins to think they are untouchable," he said.
The arrest poses a serious test for Mexico's judicial system, Olson said.
"Can they hold someone accountable from a very powerful political family?" Olson said. "He and his father have been surrounded by suspicion for decades but nothing has ever quite stuck."
A 1999 report by the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center singled Hank Rhon out as an associate of drug smugglers, but then Attorney General Janet Reno called the report incomplete and said its conclusions were "never adopted as official view."
In 1988, two of Hank Rhon's employees were convicted of killing a Tijuana journalist who reported on corruption for the crusading weekly Zeta.
And in 1995, he was detained at Mexico City's airport when customs agents found he failed to declare such items as ocelot furs, ivory carvings, sculptures covered in precious stones and pearl-encrusted vests, the Attorney General's office said in a statement.
Hank Rhon, the father of 19 children with several different women, said several years ago he was too rich to be corrupt.
"I don't put anything in my pockets. I take it out," he said. "I have a really big business ... and with that money I support myself, my wife, my kids and grandkids."