Federal prosecutors on Monday ordered a former Tijuana mayor held an additional two days on possible weapons and organized crime charges, while the government insisted an early-morning raid on the self-proclaimed billionaire's home wasn't an effort to hurt an opposition party ahead of elections.
The detention order came as details trickled out about Saturday's arrest of Jorge Hank Rhon and 10 employees when soldiers stormed his sprawling Tijuana estate, which includes a casino, a huge private zoo and a soccer stadium. The army said it found 88 firearms and nearly 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration provided intelligence to Mexican authorities before the arrest, said a U.S. official who insisted on speaking anonymously because the matter is the subject of an open investigation. The official declined to elaborate on the nature of the information, including whether it was related to the seized arms.
Hank Rhon, 55, who has gambling interests, has prospered through decades of suspicion that his family's fortune is linked to Tijuana's emergence in the 1980s as a major corridor for South American cocaine to the United States.
Members of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, have given cautious support. Although PRI President Humberto Moreira declined to comment on the charges, he said the case does nothing to detract from Hank Rhon's "extraordinary" accomplishments as mayor.
The manner in which the government carried out the raid drew condemnation from Fernando Castro, a senator who is considered a possible rival to Hank Rhon as the PRI nominee for Baja California state governor in 2013. Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante, also of the PRI, was quoted in Mexican media also criticizing the army's tactics.
Hank Rhon and his wife, Maria Elvia Amaya de Hank, said they and their children were hustled from bed around 3 a.m. by soldiers who never displayed a search warrant.
Hank Rhon said in a handwritten account of the arrest released Sunday that he didn't recognize and had never seen the weapons that the soldiers said were his. His wife said all the arms in their home were legal and permitted.
Mexico's federal security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, denied Monday that the arrest was a political hit on the PRI as President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party seeks to retain the presidency in 2012 elections.
"Those things are part of the past and what's happening in Mexico today is a big push for the rule of law, which had long been missing," Poire told the Televisa network.
Asked about the absence of a search warrant, Poire said the soldiers witnessed a crime taking place. Mexican law does not require a search warrant in those circumstances. Troops staged the raid after three armed people detained near a Tijuana hotel told them weapons were hidden in the compound, authorities have said.
Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, doubts the arrest had to do with partisan politics. Otherwise, the government would have sought a more prominent opposition figure, he said.
"I suspect that Calderon wants to show that his government won't stand for impunity from public officials and former public officials," Selee said. "Hank is a relatively easy target compared to other politicians since he's now out of government and is seen as something of a maverick even within his own party."
Hank Rhon was mayor of Tijuana from 2004 to 2007, but lost a run for Baja California governor that year. The father of 19 children with several different women, he has long been a target of suspicions about money laundering and other illegal activity but said several years ago he was too rich to be corrupt.
David Fernandez, dean of Universidad Iberoamericana's law school in Tijuana, said it was difficult to weigh the current evidence against Hank Rhon because it isn't public.
"There's always been a cloud of suspicion around Hank," Selee said, "but whether there is sufficient evidence to be upheld in a court of law remains to be seen. We've seen several attempts to arrest public officials believed to be linked to organized crime. In most cases, the government has not been able to meet a sufficient burden for prosecution, which doesn't mean those arrested have been innocent."
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Mexico City and Elliot Spagat from San Diego, California.