Tuesday, June 14, 2011
A federal judge ordered the release of former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon early Tuesday, saying officials lacked evidence to charge him with illegal weapons possession after a military raid on his house.
The 55-year-old gambling magnate had been held since the June 4 raid on his Tijuana house, beside a racetrack and casino. Hank Rhon is part of a prominent clan in the Institutional Revolutionary Party that is trying to regain Mexico's presidency next year's election.
Judge Blanca Evelia Parra Meza also ordered the release of eight people arrested with Hank Rhon and the dismissal of charges against all 11 who were picked up in raid. Two had been released last week. It was not clear early Tuesday if Hank Rhon had left the prison.
According to a court statement, the judge said there was not enough evidence presented before time ran out on the constitutional limit for holding Hank Rhon and the others on charges of illegal possession of weapons, ammunition and possession of weapons for use only by the military.
It says the ruling can be appealed.
With the raid on Hank Rhon's home, prosecutors had gone after a man with deep roots in Mexico's elite who had long been considered untouchable.
But the unusual circumstances of the raid, coming in the run-up to an election season, left federal officials scrambling to deny it had political motivations.
U.S. officials have long been suspicious of the Hank clan, and the flamboyant Hank Rhon in particular. Gambling can be a prime way to launder money, and Hank Rhon runs a gaming empire based in one of the world's busiest drug-trafficking corridors. However they have never indicted him on any corruption-related charge.
Mexico's military said it found 88 weapons and nearly 10,000 rounds of ammunition during the raid. Federal prosecutors said only 10 of the weapons were licensed. The prosecutor of Mexico's Baja California state later said that ballistic tests showed that two of the guns found had been used in homicides.
Hank Rhon denied any knowledge of the guns and his lawyer has said none of the guns seized were Hank Rhon's.
The judge's order came at about 3:20 a.m. (6:20 a.m. EDT; 1020 GMT). His lawyers were still outside the prison later in the morning, along with a Maserati used by the tycoon.
Hundreds of supporters of the flamboyant politician also gathered in anticipation of a celebration.
Hank Rhon's attorneys argued that soldiers needed a search warrant to enter the sprawling compound in central Tijuana around 3 a.m. on June 4 and that failure to get one merited dismissal of the charges without even considering the 40 rifles, 48 handguns, 9,298 bullets, 70 ammunition clips and a gas grenade that were seized.
It was not clear early Tuesday if officials might try to re-arrest Hank Rhon on other charges.
Hank Rhon still faces questions over two of the seized guns that authorities have linked to the Tijuana killings of a security guard in December 2009 and an alleged car thief in June 2010. The Baja California state attorney general's office has given no timetable for completing its investigation into the two deaths.
The ruling alone will likely be viewed as a stinging setback for the administration of President Felipe Calderon as it tries to prosecute organized crime in Mexican courts.
It echoes another major blow: the federal attorney general's office arrested 12 mayors and 23 other officials in 2009 for supposedly aiding the Michoacan-based La Familia drug cartel, only to see judges set them all free, the last one in April.
"It's going to be a huge embarrassment to the Calderon administration," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute and an expert on the Mexican judicial system. "It's not so much that they made a mistake. It's that they have not been able to convict a noticeable number of organized crime suspects."
Hank Rhon's supporters, including members of his party, criticized the army for how it carried out the raid, hustling Hank Rhon, his wife and their children from bed before dawn. Catholic Church leaders came to the former mayor's defense.
"I have confidence in God that everything will be conducted in accordance with the law and you will soon be back with your family and us again," Tijuana Archbishop Rafael Romo wrote in a letter to Hank Rhon that was published Monday in Mexican newspapers.
Supporters collected tens of thousands of signatures demanding Hank Rhon's release during a four-day stakeout at a parking lot.
They planned to hold a celebration at Hank Rhon's Grupo Caliente racetrack upon his return to Tijuana after nearly a week and a half in custody.