The Roundtable: How Will Former Tijuana Mayor's Arrest Affect Baja Politics?
What have we learned from the recent arrest and release of former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon? Hank Rhon was arrested on June 4, after Mexican soldiers found a cache of 88 guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and a gas grenade at his Tijuana compound. Hank Rhon was released by federal and state judges earlier this week after a 10-day detainment. We discuss the allegations against Hank Rhon, and how his arrest could affect the politics of Baja California.
Jose Luis Jimenez, social media editor for the KPBS Fronteras Desk
Michael Smolens, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune
John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
So one of the most colorful characters south of the border was in the news this week former Tijuana Mayor, Jorge Hank Rhon was released after being detained at first by Mexican federal authorities on weapons charges and then by state authorities to be questioned about a murder investigation. So on this side of the border we have seen sex scandals surrounding a lot of our politicians but not usually charges of this nature. So Jose, who is Jorge Hank Rhon and what was he charged with? What is going on here?
JOSE LUIZ JIMENEZ: I guess he is more famously known for being the ex-mayor of Tijuana. He served one term and ran for governor of Baja California and did not win. His family has deep roots in the PRI which is one of the major parties down in Mexico and also considered to be one of the richest men in Mexico. He owns the casino down there, Caliente Casino where a lot of Americans cross the border to be able to do sports betting and he owns a lot of businesses down there most of the soccer team. Where this all started off was supposedly an anonymous tip to the military that there was some suspicious activity going on at the establishment and when they went there apparently the establishment was owned by Hank Rhon and when they question people they told him that a cache of weapons was founded so in the middle of the night they raided and found weapons and took him and 10 others into custody to the federal government to Mexico and held them on weapons charges. This week the case went before a judge and all of a sudden decided there was not enough evidence to hold him and then he was released. Then upon his release getting back a little bit once they took the cache of weapons into custody, the state authorities did some tests on the weapons and found that at least two of the weapons were involved in, could have been linked to homicides in Tijuana. So once again he was released by federal authorities that wanted to question him about those investigations. Again a judge on the state level in Tijuana said there was not enough to hold him and he was ultimately released.
ALISON ST. JOHN: John there was a little chuckle there when Jose was talking about a leak. Are you a little bit suspicious about why this broke open right now?
JOHN WARREN: We know that broke open right now because there is an election coming up next year and the PAN, which is the opposing party to the PRI want very much to weaken the PRI opportunity to come back because they have lost with Calderon, the president, and the PRI was in control for a very long time and if so it is assumed that this is connected to the coming political move and if the party can be smeared through him it would weaken financial resources and also maybe strengthen the PAN.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Michael is your take on this is legal or political?
MICHAEL SMOLENS: I want to go in a slightly different direction if I may. They criticize the numbers of weapons, the numbers of rounds there was a gas grenade. It sounds phenomenal to us north of the border but the question I sort of have and maybe Jose, you can address this is but here's a very influential, very rich potentially targeted man and is it unusual for somebody of that stature to have at his disposal not just those weapons, but if not a small army, a good-sized battalion to protect them because we know what happens down there from the people been kidnapped whether north of the border or Mexicans themselves...it doesn't, like I said in the context north of the border that sounds like a lot---
JOSE LUIZ JIMENEZ: That's a very good question and as John pointed out Mexico is not immune to conspiracy theories. There is plenty of that. It's actually one of the rumors that with all of his interests and with his notoriety and the amount that he is worth, it is expected that he would have serious protection down there. So exactly, that is what people say that this was just a cover-up. There were rumors that he was going to run again for governor in 2013 and like John pointed out the mood is changing in Mexico. The PAN initiated the drug war going on down there. Most people think it is a failure and most people think that the PRI is set for big gains in upcoming elections so the conspiracy theories that this was a set up to try and smear Hank Rhon, to at least keep Baja California under PAN. In terms of the actual cache of weapons it is illegal to have those weapons in Mexico. Semiautomatic weapons and heavy artillery, unlike the US where you can essentially go into most gun stores and buy these weapons, you are not allowed to legally have these weapons in Mexico unless you have the permission of the military and he did not have the permission which is why he was taken into custody initially.
ALISON ST. JOHN: How did he get off? Is it a possibility that the judges that said he might be released might be afraid for their lives?
JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: Anything is possible in Mexico. I must say he is a very influential person as we saw when he was taken into custody thousands of people went into the streets and rallied in his favor. His business interests supply a lot of jobs out there. He's also famously known for going into the poor areas and giving them money, giving out food, distributing to people. So he's very popular down there and a lot of people have interest in seeing him out and continuing business interest because their interests are also tied with him. But in terms of what the judge ruled, she would be, the analogy would be over here that she rode on a technicality. They have a certain number of days to present evidence, she determined that the government did not present the evidence so she cut him loose but they do have a right to appeal and federal prosecutors have said that they plan to appeal.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Do you think he should have been detained for longer? Do you think it was right that he was released? What is your take on this issue? The number here is 888-895-5727. John?
JOHN WARREN: As I understand it, you can correct me, there is no real situation in Mexico similar to what we have so when he was initially arrested he was whisked off to Mexico City where he was held and that's very important because of the border or Tijuana, whatever you want to refer to the border is always kind of seen as a stepchild to the politics within Mexico City itself be more centralized and so there is the question from that end. But I think the way this judge ruled, the whole point was that we cannot hold them because you don't need this and if they don't have the bail component to reference to and he'd already met the criteria that we have there was nothing else to do but let them go.
ALISON ST. JOHN: But if it had been on the side of the border, it's also different in Mexico that in fact it means that he got away whereas he might not on this side of the border?
JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: The judicial system is quite different Mexico. It's actually private. Nobody public is allowed to be in on it. For example the media could not sit in on the hearing to see for themselves what evidence was presented so that people can make a decision whether the judge's ruling was correct or not. Exactly, the way it works is that I can believe you can hold the person for 10 days. To hold them longer you have to show more evidence to justify the detention or if you cannot show the evidence then the judge can release them and that is what the judge ruled in this case.
ALISON ST. JOHN: So José do you think this is adding to Hank Rhon's credibility or detracting?
JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: It has added to his legend. There has been long suspicions about Hank Rhon dating back to 1981 when a journalist for Gazette magazine was killed and he has been interrogated with that. I believe there has been in the wiki leaks even up to the State Department level people have questioned his ties to drug cartels and whether his money actually comes from money laundering. Again I think this adds to legend of Hank Rhon, this bigger than life character that seems to have his tentacles in a lot of Tijuana.
JOHN WARREN: Remember this man has a wife and in addition to the wife he's got 19 children.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Do you think, John, that this undermines people's confidence in the Mexican judicial system?
JOHN WARREN: No I think people there understand how the system works, so it doesn't. But we might look at it differently from the outside but let's remember that Mexico has some very interesting laws because many times they did want to extradite people to us who had committed capital offenses because we have capital punishment and they do not and they would not turn people over for that so we have a lot of issues with their legal system but none of them are new to us at this point.
ALISON ST. JOHN: What about the politics, just to help us sort of get a better grasp on the PAN and PRI, can you, José help us understand what they stand for?
JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: Well the current, it was called the perfect dictatorship, the PRI ruled Mexico for about 76 years and it was environmentally sent to Fox and his PAN party which is more conservative finally broke that and Calderon was able to squeak by after Fox's tenure to hold onto power, to keep the PAN power across the country. But ever since then that PAN influence has been eroding and PRI has only been coming back and slowly building back and the belief was that especially with the drug was his interest and Calderon initiated it, put the Army on the streets and a lot of people are not happy with that they did not see results.
ALISON ST. JOHN: So one of the key differences between the parties is the way they approach the drug war.
JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: PAN is more conservative and more like the Republicans are here and PRI is more liberal.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Is it fair to say that politics will be heating up south of the border, Michael?
MICHAEL SMOLENS: The thing to watch is does this translate into the antigovernment, like Jose said, does that dismiss this incredible legend or does it backfire if indeed there was an effort to tarnish him, that he somehow galvanizes this as an issue that the government is wrong, it's corrupt and that's why you need to elect me and we've seen that attitude before above, north and south of the border.
JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: There's actually kind of two stories coming out of his A: it shows the incompetence of Calderon's government to get this person with all these weapons and they can't even hold him and second it's actually making him look like a sympathetic figure that he's actually being targeted. Look at me. They are afraid of me because I'm going to come in and change and make things better and they are afraid so they have to target me. So he looks like a sympathetic figure.
ALISON ST. JOHN: It backfired on Calderon and we've come to the end of the hour. Thank you very much, gentleman for another good conversation. I'd like to thank John Warren, editor of San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, Michael Smolens, government editor for the San Diego UT and Jose Luis Jimenez, social media editor for the KPBS Fronteras desk. I'm Alison St. John and we'd like to thank you for listening to the KPBS Roundtable here on Midday Edition.