The Aug. 1 Tijuana mayoral election is a crucial primer for Mexico's 2006 presidential campaign. It will play a pivotal role, both locally and nationally, in the unprecedented democratic transition the country has seen in the past two decades. It's a sexy election indeed-drugs and corruption are two of the key factors that will decide the race.
The political seat of Baja California, Tijuana is the bastion of the National Action Party (PAN), the vanguard of Mexican opposition politics. With 1.2 million inhabitants, Tijuana's population is greater than San Francisco and Baltimore combined.
The city's current administration has advanced arts and culture and pushed growing mid-level management and communications sectors. Tijuana's manufacturing industry has exploded since the passage of NAFTA in 1993. With shared use of the busiest port of entry in the world-San Ysidro-the city is a major thoroughfare between the two most active trading partners in the hemisphere.
At the same time, dark ironies course along unpaved streets in the brown hills surrounding downtown and its municipal palaces. PAN centers its platform on cleaning up corruption-but Tijuana's police force is notorious for loyalty to organized crime. Its neighborhoods are checkered with the opprobrium of third-world conditions while just north of a brackish river and an imaginary line sits San Diego, one of the richest cities in the richest state in the richest country in the world.
As the unofficial home turf of PAN, the party that wrested the reigns of national power from the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party) in the presidential vote of 2000, Baja California has been considered one of Mexico's more progressive states. The election that brought Vicente Fox to Los Pinos-Mexico's White House-marked the first time in more than 70 years that the power-shrouded PRI didn't control the country. It was a watershed moment in Mexican history-almost revolutionary-and the momentum for the coup emanated from Baja California.
"Huge, unbelievable changes are taking place," says Dr. David Shirk, Director of the TransBorder Institute Center at the University of San Diego. "Imagine if in our lifetime we saw either the Democratic or Republican party destroyed and a new political party emerge and take over. That'd be a huge, significant event in U.S. politics. What's happening in Mexico is 10 times the magnitude of something like that.... It's a complete transformation of the system."
The center-right PAN took control of Baja California in 1989 and has handily won five straight Tijuana mayoral victories. Now it's looking at its staunchest threat since taking control-the colorful, controversial, multi-millionaire PRI candidate Jorge Hank Rhon, who, according to Shirk, might be the only man in Baja California that can bring the money and notoriety the regrouping PRI needs right now.
The Rhon name is firmly established in Mexico-it's respected, reputed, feared and shunned with equal vigor from Mexico City to Washington D.C. And Rhon is no stranger to controversy. Security guards at his Aguas Calientes racetrack were convicted of the 1988 assassination of prominent Tijuana journalist-and Rhon critic-Hector Felix. Rhon was never connected to the murder, but the case has been reopened under pressure from a Miami-based journalists' rights organization.
The man heading the investigation, Francisco Ortiz, a lawyer and one of the editors of Tijuana's hard-hitting Zeta newspapers, was assassinated June 22. Rhon is listed by the authorities as an official suspect in the murder.
The two assassinations-with at least circumstantial links to Rhon-add to the disrepute caused when the Rhon family, and Jorge Hank Rhon specifically, were named in a U.S. Department of Justice report that called them a "significant criminal threat to the United States." The report was later retracted by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
Through the years, Rhon has become the Teflon Don of Mexico-the guy to whom nothing sticks. He's carefully crafted a mystique every bit as complex as John Gotti's. Financially, he's been wildly successful. He estimates his worth at $500 million. The family empire backing him is worth more than $1 billion, which means he's at no loss for funds in the current campaign. What's more, as a Tijuana celebrity-some in the media call the family the Rockefellers of Mexico-he's the recognizable, albeit controversial, candidate the PRI needs to generate the media attention to penetrate the PAN stronghold.
One of five mayoral races in Baja this year, the consequences of this election are heavy. The presidential race of 2006 looms in the background, when PAN will be facing stiff competition. More immediately, this year's vote will be a test of a Mexican populus that marched en masse-200,000 people-on June 27 protesting crime and the government corruption that permits it.
The threads of elitism and graft are prominent in the Mexican tapestry. There have always been two classes in the country-the very poor and the very rich. Shirk points out that the opposition party has grown concurrently with the emergence of the middle class, an outgrowth of the country's industrial and entrepreneurial complex.
"For PRI to offer a challenge at this time is a clear message to the PAN that the people aren't satisfied," Shirk says.
The opposition party swept into office on the promise of cleaning up a PRI-dominated system that, for many Mexicans, was synonymous with favoritism, elitism, nepotism and the systematic pillaging of the lower classes. However, 15 years after PAN took Baja, both a former district attorney and a prominent journalist have been assassinated in a six-month span, and the murder rate-the majority cartel-related executions-will probably break 200 this year, five times that of San Diego. Though a succession of its top bosses have been nabbed in the past two years, there's no denying the continued presence of organized crime in Tijuana.
Carlos Alarcon, an official with the Rosarito-Tijuana wing of the Instituto Estatal Electoral, the government entity that runs elections, explains that under the PRI corruption was everywhere, but it was controlled.
"The police knew who the criminals were-they worked with them," he says. "But it kept crime in check. Now the cartels have been disrupted, but they're like cancer. The country used to have one big, centralized and controlled criminal tumor. Now we have these cancerous cells running all over, committing their own crime, and the government doesn't have the central authority to stop it."
As a result of the government's apparent impotence, an endemic wave of fear has gripped the country.
However, Shirk points out that, statistically, crime's dropped-save for an upswing in the past few years-but the public perceives a huge violent-crime problem. That likely has to do with the fact that cartels do their dirty work in public.
The real problem is that the country is economically dependent on the drug trade. Mexico's top three licit industries are oil, tourism and the money sent home from emigrants in the U.S. The illicit drug trade-which the Mexican government estimates to generate $28 billion to $35 billion per year-brings in more than all three of them combined. For perspective, in 1996 the Brookings Institution estimated that worldwide drug revenue was $122 billion.
It appears that the old guard of the PRI began turning to the country's most lucrative industry under the presidents that preceded Fox.
Miguel de la Madrid (president from 1982 to 1988) is rumored to have made a pact with the cartels, giving them carte blanche so long as they invested profits in Mexican banks. Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) made themselves very rich men-along with their inner circles-through the privatization of state industries. Jorge Hank Rhon's father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, was a four-decade stalwart in Mexican politics and an influential voice in the presidential cabinet (he was also mayor of Mexico City).
By the end of the 1990s, Carlos Hank Gonzalez was the owner of the privatized maritime transport industry, as well as several rail lines and a trucking company. Son Carlos owned several banks-one in Texas-and Jorge Hank Rhon ran a sprawling gambling empire that was making U.S. inroads.
Then, in May 1999, a Department of Justice document was leaked from the National Drug Information Center (NDIC). It was code-named "White Tiger"-for the white Siberian tiger Rhon tried to smuggle into Mexico through San Ysidro (he has his own private zoo). The report linked Rhon with both the Arellano-Felix cartel and the Juarez cartel (an operation that brought in $200 million per week). It called him both a major money launderer and a cocaine distributor.
The report hit the international media at the worst time-Janet Reno and drug czar Barry McCaffrey were in Mexico City at a bi-national drug summit. The embarrassing implication that one of its high-ranking officials was so complicit in the cartel system caused an outburst from Mexico. Within a day, Reno renounced the report, saying it had not been reviewed and was "beyond the substantive scope of the NDIC." (Michael Horn, former head of the NDIC, said in court testimony that the White Tiger case culled information from more than 80,000 case files from the DEA, FBI, CIA, Customs, IRS and several other agencies, at a cost of more than $750,000, and that the report was requested by the San Diego office of the DEA, which had been involved in a long undercover investigation of the family.)
Though no specific parts of it were officially denied, the report is null and void-Reno immediately shut down the investigation.
The Hank family, in turn, rolled out a series of civil lawsuits against a short list of reporters who had broken the story and the U.S. Army War College professor who leaked it to the press. A reporter for The Nation called the Hank strategy of unending, costly lawsuits "a counter-offensive in the War on Drugs." Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah, the man who broke the White Tiger story, told CityBeat the process has been "one of the most disheartening things I've seen as a journalist."
Now, in the irony of all ironies, Rhon is running on a platform of cleaning up corruption-capitalizing on public apprehension. Even more ironic, he might just be the man to deliver.
"The cartel pays off a local authority, who pays off his boss and up the line till it arrives at City Hall," Alarcon says. "So it's not a question of stopping corruption-the mayor and the government are part of the corruption. But can the mayor control the amount of corruption-that's the question."
Rhon's opponent, Jorge Ramos, looks fresh out of a high school debate squad. At 36, he's young and good-looking with a distinguishing shock of graying hair. Though he comes from a long-time PAN family and has a position with the current administration, his political experience is limited. Can he lead a major metropolitan center that has a major organized-crime problem?
The Teflon Don, on the other hand, for all the accusations, has been doing business in Tijuana's gambling world for the better part of two decades. And if the DEA was on the mark, he knows better than anyone how to handle the local cartel.
The question is: whose side is Rhon on? Is he truly interested in cleaning up the streets-and the government-of Tijuana, or will he bring the shadow of graft, coercion and black-marketeering that's rumored to follow him?
The poor of the city love Rhon. He's a philanthropist, and he's trying to light a fire under a post-adolescent population that's been particularly apathetic in Tijuana. The polls show him closing to within six points-far and away the closest a challenger's been to the PAN in Baja in 15 years.Zeta editor Jesus Blancornelas recently summed up the election with the question to the voters: For whom are you going to vote-Bad Jorge or Worse Jorge?