The Millionaire Mayor

Jorge Hankrhon may seem an odd choice for mayor, even in Tijuana, the notoriously sleazy Mexican border town less than 20 kilometers south of San Diego, California. The 48-year-old Mexican millionaire owns the city's once glorious Agua Caliente racetrack as well as casinos, hotels and shopping malls throughout the country. Son of one of Mexico's most famous--and richest--20th-century politicians, the late Carlos Hank Gonzalez, Hank's trademark is his eccentricity. A lover of exotic beasts, he's been known to keep pythons in his home and even bring tigers to the office. Within the gates of the Agua Caliente compound, Hank--worth an estimated $550 million--keeps some 20,000 animals in a private zoo. Rare white tigers pace inside their cages, and a hippopotamus bathes in the mud near pink flamingos and a giraffe. Sitting in his new office in city hall, Hank seems just as out of place as his exotic animals do at Agua Caliente. But his eagerness to embark on his latest adventure--his first foray into politics--is evident. "My father used to say that politics is the most jealous girlfriend a man can have," he told NEWSWEEK recently. "I want to see what it's all about."

The opposite isn't necessarily true: many people worry that Hank may be precisely what Tijuana--already famous for its corruption, crime, prostitution and poverty--doesn't need. The city is the busiest border town in the world. More than 2 million people passed through it last year--Mexicans in search of work and consumer goods and Americans looking for cheap thrills. In recent years its economy has become increasingly important to Mexico. Nearby maquiladoras--export-oriented assembly plants--are humming and attracting job seekers from all over the country. The city's estimated population of nearly 2 million is growing at an annual rate of about 80,000, and tourist visits increased by 22 percent last year. To accelerate the city's revival, Hank needs particularly to stamp out corruption and improve security for visitors. He insists he's up to the task. "If California was a country, it would be first in the world in wealth." he says. "So it's just stupid not to give [tourists] the right treatment--and the security--whenever they come down here."

There's more than a little irony in Hank's trying to clean up Tijuana, given his own checkered life. For one thing, he's fathered 18 children by three wives and a girlfriend. In 1995, Mexico City customs officials opened Hank's suitcases as he returned from Asia, finding what they believed to be illegal furs, ivory and gems. (Hank hired experts to prove the offending items were not illegal, and his name was cleared.) In early 1999 a leaked U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center report accused him, his father and his brother Carlos of involvement in the Mexican drug trade. "The Hank family represents a significant threat to the United States," read the report. But Janet Reno, the attorney general at the time, disavowed the paper, saying its claims had never been accepted as official.

One other allegation has proved much harder for the mayor to shake off. Nearly 17 years ago, on April 20, 1988, Hector "Gato" Felix Miranda, a gossip reporter for the weekly Tijuana paper Zeta who wrote regular columns about Hank's lavish lifestyle, was murdered by three Agua Caliente bodyguards. Two of them were convicted; the other fled and was found dead soon after the court trial. Every week since the murder, Zeta editor Jesus Blancornelas has taunted Hank, publishing a picture of Felix along with this text: "Jorge Hank Rhon: Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina assassinate me? Can [the] government capture those who ordered the crime?" Hank maintains that his bodyguards were wrongly convicted, and he dismisses all the allegations against him as unproven rumors. "I've always [said], 'Don't pay attention to gossip, just find the proof, then come back'," he says.

Some political observers see Hank's election as indicative of how old-style, pork-barrel PRI politics have returned to Mexico. (His father, who died in 2001, was a famous PRI kingmaker who once declared that "a politician who is poor is a poor politician.") But so far, the people of Tijuana seem to like him. Hank has already fulfilled some campaign promises--paving roads and prosecuting corrupt policemen and drug dealers. He's won over Tijuana's poorer voters with pledges to give land titles to 60 percent of the city's squatters, and his fondness for children--about 150 schoolkids enjoy a tour of his zoo each day--has given hope to a city plagued with problems of child exploitation. Jesus Guzman, who runs a home for street kids in the city's Zona Norte, can barely hold back his enthusiasm. "He's a man with heart," says the usually reserved 42-year-old. Hank will need that--and a large amount of management skill--to keep Tijuana on the right track.