Former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon's 10-day legal odyssey left him rumpled but with his reputation intact: He is an eccentric gambling tycoon with suspected ties to organized crime who appears to be untouchable by the law.
Wearing a sweat shirt and a smile, Hank Rhon walked free Tuesday after winning two rounds against Mexican authorities as separate judges dismissed federal weapons charges against him, then refused to back state prosecutors' attempts to detain him in a murder investigation.
The rapid-fire developments _ he was freed around dawn from federal custody, held by state prosecutors in the afternoon at a hotel and home safe by dinner _ dealt a blow to Mexico's attempts to fight organized crime and fueled claims that the strike against the controversial magnate was politically motivated.
"I'm free, I'm in my house with my family," Hank Rhon, 55, said late Tuesday through his spokesman, Francisco Ramirez.
While Hank Rhon was reveling in his newfound freedom, federal authorities were smarting after a judge ruled that the story of his arrest during an army raid last week just didn't hold up.
The man U.S. authorities have long suspected of ties with money laundering had supporters demonstrating in the streets for his freedom, and Roman Catholic bishops calling for his speedy release. He has strenuously denied ties to organized crime.
Federal prosecutors said they would appeal the judge's ruling, while the state said it would continue the investigation into his possible links to three homicides, including that he ordered the 2009 killing of his son's former girlfriend.
Assistant Attorney General Patricia Bugarin said that on June 8, the judge had ruled the arrests were legal.
"I don't know what reasons she had to change her mind," Bugarin told Milenio television. "I don't think the evidence was adequately analyzed."
Hank Rhon was Tijuana's mayor from 2004 to 2007, when he staged a failed run for governor. He has long figured large on the national political scene, and not only because of the wealth amassed from his Caliente gambling empire.
His father was one of Mexico's best-known politicians, leader of a faction in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that ruled Mexico from 1929 until 2000. National polls indicate that the man with the best chance to oust Calderon's National Action Party and recover the presidency for the PRI in 2012 is Enrique Pena Nieto, who has political ties to Hank Rhon.
Federal Judge Blanca Evelia Parra Meza ruled early Tuesday that there wasn't enough evidence to order Hank Rhon and eight others to stand trial on charges of possessing weapons restricted to military use, according to a statement from the court office. Parra said that the story told by soldiers about the pre-dawn raid in which they found weapons at Hank Rhon's home didn't hold up.
Soldiers raided his elaborate compound, which includes a racetrack, a casino and a private zoo in the early morning of June 4, seizing 88 weapons and nearly 10,000 rounds of ammunition during the raid.
Federal prosecutors said only 10 were licensed and two were traced to two other Tijuana murders, of a security guard in December 2009 and an alleged car thief in June 2010.
Hank Rhon's lawyers said the raid was illegal because soldiers didn't have a search warrant.
The army had said the soldiers didn't need a search warrant to enter the house because they got a tip about weapons being stored there, saw armed men at the residence and followed them inside. But Parra, the federal judge, said, "There was evidence of several inconsistencies, in regard to the times, distances and places referred to in the soldiers' report," according to the statement.
Hank Rhon was then turned over to state prosecutors, who announced they were investigating his link to the August 2009 killing of 24-year-old Angelica Munoz after the assassin testified that he acted under orders from Hank Rhon.
A state judge then refused to order him held for 40 days without charges while prosecutors completed the investigation.
Prosecutors' spokesman Marco Vinicio Blanco said a Baja California state judge cited a lack of evidence in deciding not to hold him in the killing, in which the woman was shot in the head.
U.S. authorities have long suspected Hank Rhon of links to money laundering, but no accusations have been documented. Two of his bodyguards were convicted of killing investigative journalist Hector Felix Miranda in 1988, but they denied the attack was linked to their boss, and no charges were filed against him.
Despite the accusations, Hank Rhon's reputation for generosity won him support in Tijuana.
Bertha Guadalupe Diaz, a 66-year-old street vendor who regularly attends Hank Rhon's massive, free parties on Mother's Day and other holidays, recalled being summoned to City Hall when Hank Rhon learned she couldn't afford a hearing aid. He offered to pay the bill.
"Thanks to him, I hear," she said.
Virginia Mora, 66, said she met Hank Rhon in her hardscrabble neighborhood when he campaigned for mayor and stopped by for two servings of homemade soup. He paid her with a huge delivery of cement and other building materials.
"He likes to help people out, give gifts," said Mora, 66.
Associated Press writer Mariana Martinez contributed to this report.