Release of former Tijuana mayor compounds Mexico's judicial credibility problem

Tuesday's release of Jorge Hank Rhon after being held on gun charges is a blow to a government that can't seem to make charges against organized crime stick, writes guest blogger Steven Dudley.

By , Guest blogger

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    The former mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon, is questioned by reporters as he leaves a courthouse in the northern border city of Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday June 14. The flamboyant gambling magnate-turned politician has won a second round against state and federal prosecutors after a judge refused a request to hold him in a murder investigation.
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Jorge Hank Rhon was first freed in the early hours of Tuesday morning, after a judge threw out the gun charges against him on grounds of insufficient evidence. This was despite reports that dozens of unlicensed guns were found in his home, two of which were allegedly used to commit homicides.

The business magnate was then taken for questioning over his connections to various murder cases, including that of his son's girlfriend in 2009. Again, the judge ruled against holding him while the government investigates what may be three separate murder charges.

Mr. Hank Rhon, one of the country's richest men, has been connected to the Tijuana Cartel, the murder of a journalist, breaking customs laws by trafficking ivory, and numerous other shady operations. However, he has consistently eluded jail and remains one of the most powerful men in the state of Baja California. His name circulates as a possible candidate for governor of the state or a return as mayor of Tijuana.

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The former mayor's release leaves the Mexican government of Felipe Calderón, and by extension his political party, the National Action Party (Partido de Accion Nacional – PAN), with a huge credibility problem as it tries to convince Mexicans that the battle it began against organized crime when Mr. Calderón took power in 2006 is bearing fruit.

While the government has killed and imprisoned numerous top Mexican criminals, what most Mexicans see is violence – nearly 40,000 dead since Calderón entered office – and a government that is ill-prepared to take on the country's dark political powerbrokers such as Hank Rhon.

Hank Rhon's family made its money the old fashioned way: via connections with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional - PRI). His father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, was famous for saying, "A politician who is poor is a poor politician."

Hank Rhon is now one of the wealthiest businessmen in Mexico and wields considerable power in other areas such as Mexico State, which is preparing for what is expected to be a hotly contested election in November.

Hank Rhon's arrest sparked criticisms that the Calderón government was putting him in the "freezer," in Mexican political parlance (i.e., neutralizing him during the election season). Ironically, it was the politician who was seen as the victim. Tijuana residents were photographed with pro-Hank Rhon T-shirts that said things like "Todos Somos Hank" (We are all Hank).

The arrest and subsequent releases of the business magnate have given rise to a round of infighting amongst Mexico's authorities. The federal organized crime agency SIEDO said that the release had damaged the image of both the justice system and the Mexican Army, while others accused the government of cutting a deal with Hank Rhon's party, the PRI, and described the events as a "farce."

The case is an indictment of a justice system that many consider broken. The crumbling case against the politician calls to mind the "Michoacanazo," the arrest of dozens of state and local politicians in Calderón's home state of Michoacán in May 2009. In the end, every single one of the arrested officials was released without a single conviction, an embarrassing result that the government blames on poor judicial decisions.

The Mexican research organization ICESI estimated in its 2010 annual study on crime that fewer than one offense in every 100 makes it in front of a judge.

---Steven Dudley is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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