Former Tijuana mayor held over alleged gun cache

Soldiers raided the home of former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, one of Mexico's most flamboyant businessmen and politicians, and detained him on suspicion of illegal weapons possession Saturday.

Troops found 88 guns in the gambling impresario's house, the federal Attorney General's Office said. It said Hank Rhon and 10 other people were in custody.

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 spokesman, Francisco Ramirez, declined to comment on the case. His lawyer, Adela Ruvalcaba, said she was seeking a court order to prevent him being held without charges. Hank Rhon's wife, Elvia de Hank, was hospitalized after the army raid, said her press secretary, Martina Martinez.

Federal officials said Hank Rhon was first taken to the local office of the Attorney General's Office, then was driven to the airport to be flown to Mexico City. 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.

Ramirez, Hank Rhon's spokesman, said soldiers arrived at 3:30 a.m. at Rhon's Tijuana estate, which includes his home, a casino, the private zoo, a soccer complex and a school.

Heriberto Garcia, the top human rights official of Baja California, 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.

As reports of the detention spread, a crowd of about 200 of Hank Rhon's supporters demonstrated outside the prosecutor's office to demand his release.

They jeered as masked soldiers entered the building with rifles over their shoulders. "Don't take him!" one man yelled through a bullhorn. Many of the protesters wore the red T-shirts used during Hank Rhon's failed campaign for governor.

"He is a person who has done so many good things for this city. He has improved the image of this city," said Julio Diaz, an attorney who showed up to support the former mayor.

Some in the crowd said the arrest was an effort to tarnish Hank Rhon's party, the once dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, ahead of Mexico's 2012 presidential election and the 2013 vote for Baja California governor. Hank Rhon has been widely considered a potential PRI candidate to try again to win the governor's office.

But the party's president, Humberto Moreira, said he saw no evidence of anti-PRI motives. "I don't think it is part of a 'witch hunt,'" he said of the raid, speaking to reporters in the central city of San Luis Potosi.

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 surprising 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."