Sat, Aug 04, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Rhon a colorful candidate for governor

TIJUANA BOLD Saying that his opponents only seek to promote `fear and uncertainty,' Jorge Hank Rhon continues to deny that he is linked to drug traffickers

AP , TIJUANA, MEXICO

Jorge Hank Rhon brags about drinking tequila mixed with bear bile and steeped with the penises of tigers, lions and dogs. He has weathered allegations of ties to drug trafficking, money laundering and murder-for-hire.

But none of that seemed to matter to his supporters as the self-proclaimed billionaire dog-track owner and Tijuana mayor wrapped up his campaign for governor of Mexico's Baja California state this week.

Most polls give a slight advantage to his main opponent, Jose Guadalupe Osuna, 51, of President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party, whose gubernatorial victory 18 years ago in Baja was the beginning of the end for the Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year hold on the presidency.

But Hank Rhon -- who keeps a private zoo with 20,000 animals, five times more than the famous San Diego Zoo across the border -- loves a good fight, and has overcome much bigger obstacles.

The son of a PRI party boss, he overcame a double-digit deficit in the opinion polls to become Tijuana's mayor three years ago, despite claiming during the campaign that "women" were his favorite animals.

He brushes aside accusations of corruption, saying his opponents just want to "promote chaos, distrust, fear and uncertainty, so that we won't vote."

When Mexico's Reforma newspaper reported on Tuesday that Tijuana police officers were secretly taped tipping off the Arellano Felix drug gang about federal investigations, Hank Rhon said he stood behind his men and claimed the report was planted to help his opponent.

The federal Attorney General's office confirmed that the tapes were part of a 2004 preliminary investigation into ties between police and drug traffickers, but investigators have been unable to positively identify the voices.

Earlier US suggestions of links between Hank Rhon and drug traffickers didn't stick either -- while a 1999 report by the US National Drug Intelligence Center singled him out as an associate of drug smugglers, then-US Attorney General Janet Reno called the report incomplete and said its conclusions were "never adopted as official view."

Hank Rhon built a faithful following in this gritty border city as mayor with roundups of petty thieves, programs to keep kids in school and huge street parties to celebrate Mothers' Day and Children's Day.

But his "open door" Tuesdays really got people's attention. Each week, he became a sort of political Santa Claus, meeting privately with anyone who lined up, and often giving them cash or even homes. It's hard to find a Tijuana resident who doesn't know someone who has received something -- a wheelchair, a job -- from Hank Rhon.

Maria Elena Romero, a 47-year-old maid who struggles to support herself and two children on US$200 a month, remembers how Hank Rhon gave her US$46 two years ago to help pay her rent.

"If he wins, I'm going to ask him for a monthly stipend," she said as her two teenagers fought through a crowd for free campaign T-shirts, baseball caps and bottled water emblazoned with Hank Rhon's photo being handed out on Tuesday from trucks at the closing campaign rally.

The election is set to be held tomorrow.

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