Hank’s notorious private zoo allegedly includes more than 20,000 animals, the more exotic of which come from unlicensed private sellers overseas, are bought from zoos, or, rumor has it, are smuggled across the border from the US. Most of the display visible from the parking lot and street is relatively mundane—peacocks, ostriches, a yak—but nearer to the arena itself, visitors catch a glimpse of the collection’s gems: the Bengal tigers. According to another rumor (rumors have their way of attaching themselves to Hank Rhon), his collection includes exceptionally rare white tigers as well, hidden away in the zoo’s mysterious inner sanctum.
Animal stories figure prominently into the aura of myth, legend, and fact that surrounds Hank Rhon. In 1991, a white tiger cub named Blanca, one of Hank’s, was nabbed from the rear seat of a Mercedes by San Diego border agents on its way back from a birthday party. That’s fact. Other legends are more difficult to pin down.
80 percent of the Baja populace opposes bullfighting and would like to see it banned
The festivities leading up to the bullfight that August afternoon were so raucous and prolonged—basically a sprawling tailgate party, heavy on beer and micheladas—that the bullfight itself felt almost like an afterthought. Banks of speakers on a large stage blared American pop music while a band of mariachis waited their turn off-stage, the clarinetist amusing himself by playing along to the sax solo in Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Spectators staggered up to booths selling heaping plates of paella, the product of a tournament earlier in the afternoon between the city’s top ten paelleros.
The great man himself made his entrance midway through the party, rolling up to the arena in a black Mercedes sedan. A banquet table draped in red awaited at the edge of the tented space where the party ground noisily on. Over the next hour a succession of well-dressed men and women stopped by to pay homage to Hank, who wore his trademark leather vest, which some claim is made from the skins of Xoloscuintles, an indigenous dog breed that lends its name to his five-year-old premier-league soccer franchise. Eventually an announcer cleared the mariachis from the stage, lauded Hank in a lengthy and officious speech, and invited the by-now rowdy crowd into the arena.
Jorge Hank Rhon sits shaded at his banquet table with his entourage. Photo by: Jose Pelayo
To reach the bullring, I followed the rest of the spectators down a narrow walkway that traversed rows of tiger cages, boxy rectangular enclosures similar to backyard dog runs, decorated sparsely with rocks and driftwood and fringed with dry shrubs. On either side of us were tigers, perhaps two dozen in all, huge and powerful, napping or grooming themselves. When I made my way toward the interior of the zoo, I was turned away by security guards in orange uniforms. Hank Rhon and his inner world remain, as many in Tijuana can attest, untouchable.
It’s widely assumed that Hank Rhon will run for governor of Baja California in the near future, setting the stage for a confrontation between political exigency and personal business interests. A recent survey by the Tijuana-based marketing firm IMERK found that nearly 80 percent of the Baja populace opposes bullfighting and would like to see it banned; just last spring, the state legislature nearly passed just such a measure. Technically, Hank Rhon’s Arena Caliente, which, through a legal technicality, falls under federal, rather than municipal, jurisdiction, would be immune to a state ban. But votes are votes. Keeping the ring open risks alienating a majority of potential constituents.