TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican gambling tycoon Jorge Hank Rhon, an eccentric former mayor of Tijuana who collects exotic animals, was arrested on Saturday after the army found a large weapons cache in his home.
The millionaire businessman, who owns a successful chain of casinos, a soccer team and racetrack, was arrested during a raid in an upscale Tijuana neighborhood, the army and federal prosecutors said in a statement.
Soldiers launched the sweep after receiving an anonymous tip, surprising Hank Rhon and 10 other people with a stash of 40 rifles, 48 pistols and a gas grenade, the statement said.
The 55-year-old Hank Rhon and his fellow suspects were held the local attorney general’s office before being transferred to an air force base in Tijuana under army and police guard.
Hank Rhon belongs to a prominent political family linked to the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. His arrest could become a flashpoint ahead of hotly contested gubernatorial elections in the State of Mexico next month.
A colorful character who often sports a red crocodile-skin vest, Hank Rhon was mayor of Tijuana, a busy drug trafficking corridor city across from San Diego, California, from 2004 to 2007. He once ran for governor of Baja California state but lost.
Still popular in parts of the city, dozens of his supporters came out to protest his arrest.
“This is a violation ... the people are going to mobilize in support of (Hank Rhon),” PRI member Ranier Salcon said.
The PRI’s national leader said he hoped the arrest was not a political “witch hunt,” local media reported.
A private zoo run by Hank Rhon in Tijuana has thousands of species including rare tigers, bears and elephants.
Known for bringing a famous killer whale that starred in “Free Willy” films to a marine park in Mexico, he once commented that his favorite kind of animal was women.
In 1995 police arrested him at the Mexico City airport with luggage containing precious stones, ivory and ocelot furs.
His father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a former federal cabinet minister and mayor of Mexico City, was denounced in a U.S. government report for helping drug gangs but the U.S. attorney general at the time said the report was inconclusive.
Hank Gonzalez died in 2001 after earning a reputation as a powerful political operator inside the PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades before being voted out of power in 2000.
The party is angling for a presidential comeback in 2012.
Suspicions swirled around the 1988 killing of a Tijuana newspaper columnist who criticized the Hank family after Hank Rhon’s race track security guards were arrested for the crime.
Mexico is enmeshed in a violent war against drug cartels that has killed more than 38,000 people in the past four years and uncovered many cases of official corruption.
Additional reporting and writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Eric Walsh