Last Wednesday, May 2, was a day of reckoning foretold by many Tijuanans. They may not have been able to peg the exact date it would happen, but they knew it was coming: Antonio Vera Palestina would be captured. They got Vera Palestina! began as a midnight whisper the night before, when the former bodyguard wanted in connection with the murder of "El Gato" Felix was taken into custody at the border. They got Vera Palestina! became a shout just after sunrise amid the commotion at Eighth and Constitucion, outside the Tijuana police station. Later in the morning it was official: they had finally captured Tijuana's most wanted fugitive, a short, bearded man who could at last shed light on one of the many unsolved murders of Mexican journalists.
As word of Vera's arrest spread through the city, Jorge Hank Rhon, principal owner of the Caliente Racetrack and the man Vera had guarded for the last several years was in Mexico City. Ever since Vera's disappearance, the April 20, 1988 murder of Héctor "Gato" Felix Miranda, a widely read columnist for the Tijuana newspaper Zeta, had been laid at Hank's feet. Another of Hank's bodyguards, Victoriano Medina Moreno, was convicted of the murder last August and sentenced to 27 years in prison. But it was Vera who many Tijuanans believe actually pulled the trigger on the shotgun, and only Vera could provide the testimony that might implicate Hank in ordering the killing.
After Gato was blown away and Vera Palestina disappeared, Hank was never willing to say much about the affair. He doesn't trust the Mexican press; and as long as Seta kept reprinting Gato's old columns and publishing a black page on which the writer asks, from beyond the grave, "Hank, why did your bodyguards kill me?" he didn't feel he could get a fair hearing from Tijuana reporters. But a couple of weeks before Vera Palestina was apprehended in Los Angeles, Hank agreed to talk with the Reader about his life in Tijuana, his background in Mexico City, and the killing of El Gato.
The story of Jorge Hank Rhon, 34-year-old son of a wealthy, powerful Mexican family, could be the plot of one of the luridly illustrated lágrimos y risas (tears and laughter) novellas so many Mexicans are addicted to. In 1985, at 29, Hank arrived in Tijuana to become general manager of the farthest-flung of the family's many business enterprises, the Caliente racetrack. He proceeded to throw around his considerable financial weight, becoming a social benefactor to schools, sports teams, and needy individuals and godfather to numerous babies. He bought a fine restaurant, Alcazar Del Rio, and a new shopping center, Pueblo Amigo. He expanded and upgraded Caliente's off-track betting parlors and spent millions on a new restaurant and rehabilitation of the physical plant. He established a private zoo in the track's infield, which included camels, elephants, big cats, pygmy hippos, and a variety of birds, snakes, and wolves. He became Tijuana's most visible chilango — an epithet describing a person from Mexico City — in a city that mocked and professed hatred for chilangos. But unlike many of the city slickers who migrated to this area to get their fortunes out of the country or to try to make their fortunes in boomtown Tijuana, Hank was able to garner a grudging respect from the locals. El Gato himself had said of Hank in 1986, "He is the antithesis of a chilango.
But two years later, El Gato was writing items about Hank in his column in the iconoclastic weekly Zeta that were the antithesis of flattery. He implied that Hank was a bisexual, coke-sniffing, philandering daddy's boy who was running the racetrack toward ruin, and he bit relentlessly at Hank's festive and profligate lifestyle. Of course, El Gato also lampooned other powerful and not-so-powerful people in an obnoxious, obscene, and extremely popular style. It was the bitchy voice of a perspicacious gay man, which Gato was, and the intensity of his attacks on Rhon took on the petulance of the jilted.
And while Tijuana's middle class and the dispossessed seemed to read Gato's words as a kind of flip-side gospel handed down on paper tablets, upper-class and powerful people considered him the worst kind of scandalmonger. "El Gato was such a corrupt son of a bitch, he could have been killed by anyone," remarks a chilango who knew Hank when they both attended a private school in Mexico City. "Zeta sells a lot more papers by claiming El Gato was martyred. But if people learned he was a declared homosexual and his ways of exacting things from people were very dirty, his martyrdom would evaporate. Many people would want to get rid of him on behalf of humanity."
By the time El Gato was murdered and two of Hank's security men were charged with the crime, Hank was already experiencing some personal and professional difficulties — with Gato's considerable assistance. In the spring of 1987, Hank's brother Cuauhtémoc died in a diving accident near Cancun; then there was a short strike by workers at Caliente. By the fall of 1987, the Del Mar racetrack opened its satellite betting facility, and Caliente's revenues were chopped immediately in half. As Hank struggled to establish his own string of off-track betting parlors that would trump Del Mar by offering Las Vegas-style sports wagering, El Gato was assassinated, and Hank fell under suspicion as the "intellectual author" of the crime.
At the same time, Hank's marriage of nine years was collapsing, and eventually his wife returned to Mexico City with the three children and divorced him. Finally, last November 25, Caliente's Alba Roja union put up the red-and-black strike flags, and to date, Hank has lost close to $3 million due to the work stoppage. Three of his seven elephants have died, along with many of his snakes, because of the declining level of care he could provide them. (By law, Hank is barred from entering the track grounds during the strike.) He's had to sell off his black, twin-engine Lockheed JetStar executive jet, a well as six of his beloved sports cars including the Ferrari.