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Caliente Racetrack owner Jorge Hank Rhon discusses the murder of "El Gato"

I'd say. 'Okay, Felix, what do you want?'

Jorge Hank Rhon.  In 1985 Hank arrived in Tijuana to become general manager of the Caliente racetrack.
  • Jorge Hank Rhon. In 1985 Hank arrived in Tijuana to become general manager of the Caliente racetrack.
  • Image by Alison Holland

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.

"After my brother died, I started growing the beard and the hair."

"After my brother died, I started growing the beard and the hair."

Zeta

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.

El Gato implied that Hank was a bisexual, coke-sniffing, philandering daddy's boy who was running the racetrack toward ruin.

El Gato implied that Hank was a bisexual, coke-sniffing, philandering daddy's boy who was running the racetrack toward ruin.

Zeta

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.

Hank, Palestina. "Yeah. I'm the godfather to one of his daughters."

Hank, Palestina. "Yeah. I'm the godfather to one of his daughters."

Zeta

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.

Another of Hank's bodyguards, Victoriano Medina Moreno, was convicted of the murder last August and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Another of Hank's bodyguards, Victoriano Medina Moreno, was convicted of the murder last August and sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Zeta

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.

Jesus Blancornelas. Blanco told him Felix was mad because he hadn't been invited to the party during the Caribbean Classic.

Jesus Blancornelas. Blanco told him Felix was mad because he hadn't been invited to the party during the Caribbean Classic.

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."

Palestina, apprehended in Los Angeles, being returned to Mexico.

Palestina, apprehended in Los Angeles, being returned to Mexico.

Zeta

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.


But at the time Hank first met Hector Felix Miranda, in May of 1986, the racetrack was in the midst of an unusually good year. Caliente's management and labor reached a contract agreement five days before deadline, the first time in six years a contract was agreed to without a strike. "Everybody said, 'You're just a kid, you're too young to do this,'" he recounts pridefully, recalling that event. The same day, Caliente threw a big fiesta celebrating the Day of the Child, in which some 50,000 Tijuana children were bussed to the track for food, games, and gifts. Two days later, Caliente opened its exclusive Jockey Club restaurant. A few days later was the Kentucky Derby, traditionally the biggest Saturday of the year at Caliente. May 11 was the Miss Mexico pageant, broadcast worldwide. "It was the first time a beauty pageant was seen in China," Hank reports.

According to Hank, he first met Hector Felix Miranda a few days before the beauty pageant. He hadn't read much of El Gate's work, but "Some of my friends — my supposed-to-be friends — said, 'Do you know what he wrote about you?'" Hank recalled, sitting on a couch upstairs in his mansion just east of the racetrack. Through the window behind him the red-and-black flags could be seen flapping atop the Alba Roja union hall, just across Agua Caliente Boulevard. Five blocks up Hank's street, reporters and editors were working in the Zeta offices on the upcoming anniversary issue marking the second year of Gato's murder. Downstairs, a Siberian tiger cub punctuated Hank's soft-spoken tone with shrieks.

Hank explained that before he met Felix, the columnist had written a few items mocking his long hair and had retold embarrassing stories about Hank's being refused entrance into Caliente's Turf Club restaurant. Hank explains that for the first six months after he arrived in January 1985, he moved around the track incognito, just watching, listening, hanging out on the back stretch, trying to determine whether he wanted to take over the track. Most track workers didn't know who the mysterious stranger was.

"So when we were doing 'Miss Mexico,' I told one of the guys that was in charge that when Felix comes out, tell him I have his tickets. I just wanted to meet the guy and him to meet me. So he can say anything he likes after he meets me. After he knows who I am."

They met, and Hank told Gato he was available anytime the writer wanted to ask him something or check out a tip. "After I knew who he was, if there was a press conference or anything, I used to kid around with him, always; when he was sitting down there I'd say. 'Okay, Felix, what do you want?'

Just playing with him," Hank recalls, "I started inviting him to the parties." The young businessman is famous for his taste for partying. His parties in Mexico City, on the private front<#151>n at his parents' home, were legendary. Hank's father was a former governor of the state of Mexico who became mayor of Mexico City in 1976. Hank's circle consisted of the "Lomas Juniors," the sons of the men who ran Mexico and lived in the exclusive Lomas Alias neighborhood of Mexico City. The "juniors" are disparaged in Mexico as pampered rich kids who get anything they want and whose antics are protected by their influential fathers. Hank's father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, had a particular talent for good image-making, and he became one of the most popular mayors in recent times.

Invitations to Hank's get-togethers in Tijuana became badges of status in a society underpinned by symbolism. At one soirée, a carne asada cookout on the Caliente back stretch, Hank says he took Gato Felix aside and said, "Okay, you're coming to everything, so let's get it straight. You can say whatever you like about me, that's fine, I don't care. As long as you don't get into the family. That's it. My father and myself are public people, so go on with us, whatever you like. And whenever I need privacy and you're around, I'm going to let you know, so you either keep it to yourself or leave, if that's fine with you." According to Hank, El Gato agreed, adding, "I'm a journalist. I'm very dirty in my playings because people like it, but I'm not a son of a bitch."

The two men then apparently headed off into an uneasy friendship. Gato would use his column to poke fun at Hank or manipulate Hank into helping someone, and Hank would either not read it (he says he quit reading Mexican newspapers 16 years ago, after too many lies were published about his father) or have it brought to his attention by an aide and would sometimes respond by doing what Gato asked of him in the column.

Hank was famous for helping out friends or acquaintances who were sick and couldn't afford good medical care. Hank recalls, "Once Gato wrote that there was someone sick in some hospital, and I should help him. And I saw [Gato] at the Jockey Club that week, and I said, 'Hey, come on, stop doing that. If I help this guy, you're going to write that I did, so people will start passing you letters to pass to me, asking me to help them too. And I've already got enough people who make it to the office asking for my help. And if I don't help this guy, you're going to write that I didn't, so come on. Don't do that anymore.'" Hank says he did help the man anyway, just that once, and that El Gato later printed an item saying that Hank had asked him to slop publishing personal appeals.

Hank is still besieged by people who want something from him. An old friend describes him as "lonely" even though he's surrounded by staffers who cater to his every need and suitors asking for his counsel and (usually) his money. A childhood friend of Hank's observed that his privileged status created in Hank an indelible sense of not fitting in and that this explains his passion for animals. "He had a handful of friends, but after you counted them you'd still have some fingers left over," the friend remarks. "He had this feeling of always being sought after for his money rather than his good self. His friends weren't nearly as wealthy as he was, so he was always picking up the check. He became shy of people, so he would become the good Dr. Daktari."

"It's been like this for 20 years," Hank explains. "You get used to it after a while." He says that he considers it a challenge to test his own first impressions of people against their later behavior towards him. He has a firm handshake, not characteristically Mexican, and a way of looking at people with his velvety gray eyes, a feline type of sizing up. When asked if he believes people were attracted to hint for his own good self or because of his money, he replied, "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's because of my money." He claims it hasn't made him cynical.


Sitting in Hank's luxurious living room, the conversation turns to more immediate concerns.

Did the relationship with El Gato change or turn sour?

"Yeah. In <#213>87, well, back in <#213>86, I did the Caribbean Classic down here, and a very good friend of mine made me a party. And he asked a girl who was working with us in public relations to do the list and to invite everybody. [About] the girl doing the invitations, Gato had just written, 'It seems that this girl is going out with her boss,' or something like that." Her boss was Hank. "So she got mad. So she didn't invite him. After that, he got angry at me."

Sometime later, Hank says he invited both Jesus Blancornelas and Gato Felix, codirectors of Zeta, to Tijuana. Only Blanco came. When Hank asked where Felix was, Blanco told him Felix was mad because he hadn't been invited to the party during the Caribbean Classic. Eventually, Hank ran into Felix at the Jockey Club and said. "Hey, don't be so... What happened was, you got mad because they didn't invite you to a party they did for me — so am I to blame? Come on, don't kid around." El Gato started laughing, according to Hank, and said, "Well, it's not really so."

"Sure it's so," Hank retorted. "You talk bad about her, tell everybody she's going out with me, which is not true, and she was sore with you. And you know she should be. And then she just decided not to invite you. And I didn't know anything about the invitations."

"But she invited Blanco," Gato pointed out.

"She could have invited the president of Mexico! Who cares? I didn't make the invitations. Why get mad at me?"

Thus began a serious downturn in the friendship of two of Tijuana's most prominent men. Hank told his wife she ought not to bring Zeta home anymore to their bayfront house in the Coronado Cays. "I told her that this guy was mad at me now and that some of the things he printed were lies," Hank says. "And the paper had dirty words in it; I didn't want it around my children."

In early May of 1987, Hank's younger brother Cuauhtémoc died while scuba diving at the family's Yucatan ranch, near Cancun. He was an experienced cave diver, but on this day he entered the cave with a novice diver and a new underwater scooter. He was not using the customary guide rope cave divers are supposed to attach to themselves, as a hedge against getting lost. When the scooter kicked up silt and wiped out the visibility inside the cave, the two divers became disoriented and perished, because they had no life line. Cuauhtémoc left behind a widow and four children. Hank's detractors say the family arrogance that led to his brother's fatal mistake is also at work in Hank's involvement with the Gato killing.

"After my brother died, I started growing the beard and the hair," Hank explains. "It was just for me, a sort of reminder for myself of the things you didn't do that you were planning to or hadn't been able to do with him.

"So I told Héctor at the Jockey Club, 'Hey, the only one who's going to give me problems with this is you. You're the only picks' one. Everybody else asks me or maybe doesn't even ask me, but they don't criticize my self, my person. Criticize whatever you want, but not my ways of dressing or combing my hair. So I'm going to tell you that I'm going to grow my hair and beard for a year, because of my brother. I don't want anybody else to know why, especially not the newspapers. So, there you go.'"

Why did he tell this to Felix and ask him not to print it? A close friend of Hank's says that he often tests his friendships as a way of determining people's loyalty to him. Hank is also said to be a very good friend who frequently and sincerely inquired into the troubles and setbacks of his intimates. This, combined with his legendary generosity, makes his close associates "slavishly devoted" to him, explains the friend, satisfying his need to be in control.

Maybe Gato Felix felt that he had been trusted with a bit of Hank himself. If so, that might explain why his newspaper items turned so bitter when Hank betrayed his end of the bargain. In June of 1987, during a television interview with Jan Wood, Hank's public relations director, who has a show on Channel 6 called Tijuana: Window to the South, Wood surprised Hank by asking him why he was growing his hair and beard. "I never expected it, so I just answered it. I thought about it for a second and said, 'Well, my brother's dead, and it's sort of my way of remembering him.' And that's it. Then Héctor got real mad." After that, whenever Hank saw Felix at basketball games or boxing matches, he always sent over a beer. But they never spoke again.

But Hank was not the only bigwig to be vivisected by El Gato. The mayor of Tijuana, the governor, and dozens of other politicians and businessmen also took their licks in the column. Drug dealers too were jostled by Felix, leading to one theory that the writer was silenced because he was about to reveal high-level drug transactions mat were protected by the government. Recent reports of the involvement of senior PR1 officials in the 1985 abduction of DBA agent Enrique Camarena lend some credence to the notion that a powerful cabal could have decided that El Gato had gone far enough and it was time to do something about him.


When did you first meet Vera Palestina?

"He started working with me 15 years ago."

He chauffeured and escorted you places?

"Yes. I've had bodyguards since I was 13. At those times [mid-1970s), there were a lot of political kidnappings and a lot of money kidnappings. And while not everybody liked my father when he was governor of the state of Mexico...you remember Cartonlandia, here in Tijuana? We had something like that in the state of Mexico." (Cartonlandia — cardboard city — is a common way that cities expand in Mexico. The one near Mexico City became Ciudad Netzahualcoyotl after Hank's father, the governor, expropriated private land and awarded it to the squatters.) "But a lot of leaders didn't agree with him, giving the right decision to the land holders. So he had a lot of enemies. So we started using bodyguards."

It was natural that Tony [Vera Palestina] would come with you to Tijuana — you were friends?

"Yeah. I'm the godfather to one of his daughters. I just brought three or four guys with me: Beto [Alberto Murguia, a college chum that Hank describes as 'like a brother' and who manages Pueblo Amigo], and Antonio [Vera Palestina]."

Have the police ever talked with you about what happened to Gato?

"No."

The gossip about that is because your father had the investigation halted. The investigation was declared closed about two weeks after the murder, which did seem rather quick to a lot of people. Do you think there's anything to that?

"They didn't say it was closed because my father said something or did something. They said it was closed because they had found the murderers. That's what they said." The question is, why didn't they go higher and talk to the person who employed the suspects?

"It's very" — long pause — "funny. This guy that they have in jail, Medina, he was the bodyguard for the governor [Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera]. Then he became the bodyguard for the district attorney, Eliseo Aguiñaga. Then Eliseo was kicked out of district attorney, I think Xico had about four district attorneys." (Aguiñaga resigned from office after he was reported to be involved in an alien-smuggling ring.) "So after Eliseo got kicked out, I got befriended with him, and he asked me once...'Hey, Victoriano cannot go back to work with the police because he left with me, and they won't let him, but would you mind giving him a job?' And I said sure, no problem. And he said, 'Just whenever I need him, send him to me.' And I said of course.

"I told Vera, 'This guy's not going to come to work, but we're still going to pay him. Whenever he comes to work, fine, whenever he doesn't, fine."

So you put him on the payroll as, like, a favor?

"Uh-huh. And so, Eliseo started not using him that much, and he started coming [to the track] a little bit more."

Did you get to know him at all?

"Yeah."

Do you think he did it?

"No."

Do you think he was involved?

"No."

Who do you think did it?

"That's for the law to decide." He chuckles without mirth.

Do you have any opinions?

"Not really. I know who didn't do it."

Vera Palestina?"Yeah."

So why did he disappear, if he wasn't involved?

In Mexico, you're guilty until proven otherwise. It's not like in the States." (Mexico's system of law places a heavy burden of proof on the defendant to establish his innocence, as well as on the prosecution to prove guilt.)

He had to leave in order to protect himself? But if he wasn't involved, why would he be under suspicion?

"It was very easy. You could analyze the list [of suspected masterminds]. Everybody else on the list is my friend, so I won't talk about them, but there were very few people that could have done it. They were all mentioned. And if you start giving me names, I won't say yes to any of them. They have to have power, and they have to have people around them. And one of them was myself. [The suspected "intellectual authors" of the assassination, as listed originally by Zeta, included Hank, his friend Murguia, Governor Xico and his brother Edgardo, former Tijuana Mayor Federico Valdes, and former governor Roberta de la Madrid. Valdes and de la Madrid have since been eliminated from the list.]

"I've always been in the PRI [Mexico's long-time ruling political party]. You get used to being quiet when you need to. So that's what I did. I never talked about it. The thing is, the authorities were from the PRI, and they decided that he was guilty, so that's why."

For Gato assassination theorists, this is a tantalizing morsel. What Hank had just implied — that he was keeping his mouth shut, taking his licks, jeopardizing his reputation, and refusing to defend himself vigorously because of loyalty to the political party that laid the murder rap on him — didn't become clear until later. Hank was contacted in Tijuana by phone for a clarification. This was the day Vera Palestina was captured, but the news hadn't yet broken. Hank said that after all this died down, maybe we could meet over lunch and he'd explain — off the record — his own theory about who did the killing.

Why not clear yourself now? Can't you give an alternative theory to counter the one that points to you?

"I never put the finger on anyone — ever," he stated proudly.

What do you owe the PRI?

"Everything. My family owes everything to the PRI. I was born into it 34 years ago, when my father was mayor of Toluca. I will always be loyal to my authorities."

At the risk of your own skin?

"That's the way politics go in Mexico. That's the way I was raised. Look, if I say something, I have to stick to it." Hank would have to be a formal accuser in any court case brought against someone he might incriminate. "No law works very far in Mexico."

Wasn't one of the main authorities a friend of yours too — Gustavo Romero Meza? Romero was the state judicial police agent put in charge of the investigation, who ultimately collected the state's $43,000 reward for solving the case.

"Yeah. Gustavo was introduced to me by one of the trainers [at Caliente], I think. He had horses here."

That's used as another reason for why you weren't questioned, because you were actually friends with the main investigator. He was a buddy of yours.

"If he had been a buddy of mine, he would not have put the blame on [my men]. And then it was real curious. There are two guys that they say did it. And they got the one who hadn't worked for me for long. Why didn't they get Vera first?"

This question has vexed Tijuanans and reporters for two years. Medina was arrested on April 28, but the racetrack wasn't searched until three days later. By that time, Vera was gone, and all that was found was a cache of automatic weapons. Hank says the army and the police knew of the existence of these weapons, which their security department needed to protect the large sums of cash that circulated on the racetrack grounds. The actual murder weapon, a shotgun, has never been found.

Vera's capture may now still the rumors that he was being hidden on one of the Hank family ranches or that he was dead. Those who believe Hank wasn't involved in the Gato murder pointed out immediately that if Hank had been hiding Vera, how could the suspect have been located in Los Angeles? More logically, Hank could have used his billions to hide Vera in. say, Switzerland. This is an extension of the argument that the style of the assassination, in the police account of what happened, is decidedly not the way the calculating, fastidious Hank does things. If Hank wanted Gato killed, he would not have had his own bodyguards do the job and leave a trail of footprints back to the track. He could have imported a killer from, say, Colombia and had the guy flown back out of Mexico on his private jet before the blood dried.

Gringos are the main proponents of that theory, but it doesn't wash for Mexicans. Tijuanans argue that Hank is a classic Lomas Junior, accustomed to having fast cars, girls, a racetrack, an airplane, anything he wants, through the beneficence of his powerful father. This, they say, leads to arrogance and then to a cheapening of the value of life, in Hank's mind.

Not only had Gato insulted Hank's wife by writing about Hank's extramarital affairs, but, according to Mexican observers, he also insulted the girls he named as Hank's concubines. With extraordinary candor, Hank admitted in his interview that he has "a lot of girlfriends" and that he had girlfriends before his wife left him. Hank lives in a culture in which married men frequently take mistresses, and Gato broke the taboo of silence about it. Moreover, Gato alleged that Hank was involved with cocaine and intimated that he was bisexual, both of which Hank denies. Taken together, in the Mexican mind, Gate's writings were the equivalent of waving a red cape in front of Hank until, finally, the bull charged.


A Mexican who knew Hank when they both attended the German school in Mexico City has a long memory. He recalled that Hank was involved in a test-stealing scandal while he was in junior high school. ("I bought the tests from the guy that stole them." Hank explains. "I bought them for the whole school, not just my grade. They didn't cost much. It was a very good business. I sold them.") The former classmate also remembered, "There is an incident in Jorge's life when he had one of his buddies beaten by his bodyguards and sent to the hospital." The victim's name was Victor Manuel Álvarez, an architect.

Is that true?

"Yes and no," Hank replies, taking a sip of the magenta-colored herb tea he constantly drinks. "[Álvarez is a very good friend of mine. He's still here; as a matter of fact, he moved down here. He's doing the construction [of a large garden behind Hank's house]. Victor is a good friend of mine. He had a girlfriend, arid they broke up after two and a half years. I started going out with her, and when I was at her place...and suddenly he appeared. The thing is, he had jumped a wall and come in through a bedroom window. I was down in the living room, and he came down the stairs from the ^bedrooms! He was very sore and very angry, and I said, 'Hey, come on, you're not dating her anymore. I even asked you, and you said you weren't, so what's the problem?' And he said, 'No, but she still loves me....'

"So I said, 'Whenever you want to come in, just knock on the door, because if the guys out there [Hank's bodyguards] see you come in through the window, they won't know it's you. If my bodyguards see someone jumping the wall, they're not supposed to think that it's someone from the house.' So he walked out.

"So when I left that night I told them. 'Hey, are you paid to sleep out here or to be guarding the place?' One of them was Vera Palestina. Later, Victor did it again when I was there. And so I told [the bodyguards], 'Hey, if it happens once more, you're under arrest for a week. And then if it happens again, you better look for another job. If you can't guard the house that I'm in...."

"The third time they saw him, and they chased him in his car. They had a fight, and he was hurt." Hank acknowledged that his friend ended up in the hospital. But he takes pains to point out that he didn't "order" his bodyguards to hurt the man.

But when asked about the possibility that Vera Palestina might have acted on his own in killing Gato, as a service to Hank, he replied that Vera would never do that.

Why wouldn't he, given what happened to your friend at the girlfriend's home in Mexico City?

"Because I know Antonio. He wouldn't have acted that way on his own."

What about the $10,000 voucher that one of the two bodyguards was reported to have cashed at the track on the day of the murder?

"I did check on that, and that wasn't true. The security department, which Vera ran, bought a lot of patrol cars. Whenever he needed it, he asked me for the money, and I gave him vouchers. Then he got the receipts back. They were for 10, for 5, for 20 thousand dollars, all the time. And I did check on that because everybody kept asking me, and there wasn't one. He might have cashed one that I gave him ten days before, but on that day, which I checked, there was none."

So these things were like checks that you gave him to cash, and then he'd give $10,000 to the car dealer? So he frequently handled large amounts of cash?

"Yeah. I was, as a matter of fact, supplying the border police with cars and motorcycles and walkie-talkies." Hank was equipping and paying half the salary for a unit of officers set up by Tijuana tourist interests to help Americans near the border. He had also purchased fire trucks, patrol cars, and ambulances for local agencies.

Why do you think the police never interviewed you?

"[The investigation] was something very rash, very quick. As a matter of fact, the pressure was on them — every May first, there's a parade of the workers. And they were going to have a big parade, and Zeta was going to be there and try to, I don't know, say bad things about me. Everybody. So it was very big pressure on the authorities to have the guilty...to find the guilty guy [before May 1]. There had been a lot of killings, the same way, around that same time. A lot of drug people, money-cleaning people. There were at least four or five." Medina was trotted out in front of the press on April 30, showing signs of a beating, and he was already recanting the confession he had signed. The police announced then they were looking for Vera Palestina, who was missing.

Wouldn't it be natural that the police would want to talk to the people that employed the suspects?

"No. Not in Mexico. In order for someone to be able to kill someone, they have to be very much familiarized with guns. And the history in Mexico is that almost all the guerrilleros are ex-cops." Both Medina and Vera Palestina were ex-cops.

But wouldn't it be assumed that they weren't acting on their own? If they did kill him, wouldn't they be protecting you somehow, to stop Gato from writing such nasty things about you? After all, he had broken that vow you asked him to take, about not writing about your family.

"Yeeeah...." Hank is dubious. "That is, if I thought they did it. But I still think they didn't. Medina and Vera. You're going to raise a lot o questions and make a lot of noise and make a lot of newspaper people angry because I've never said that. And it's very difficult [for me] to go and say the police did something they shouldn't have. But I think they did."

You think they arrested the wrong people?

"Yes."

After Vera was arrested last week attempts were made to talk to Hank in Mexico City. Through Jan Wood, who is in contact with him, Hank was offered a chance to clarify anything he had said in the interviews, in light of the arrest. But Hank never called. Wood said he wouldn't be talking to the press until he returned to Tijuana this week.


I spent many hours in discussion with Hank, trying to divine whether or not he was involved in commissioning El Gato's murder. Obviously the circumstantial evidence against him is damning, so I kept looking for signs that he was lying, covering up trying to lead me away from the crime. I've interviewed a lot of liars but I would not now count Hank among them.

He didn't sound or act like a man with something awful to hide. Perhaps, if he is guilty, it wouldn't be evident in his demeanor if, in his own mind, he didn't author a murder but rather performed a service to his party or to his social class. That's possible, but I still believe he would have hinted at a darker side. Of course, it's also possible that he completely fooled me.

He showed none of the glee that some on the receiving end of El Gato's barbs, including some senior politicians, reportedly expressed at the time of the murder. It is said in Tijuana that many people celebrated Felix's killing, But Hank didn't seem to be that kind of man. And yet he had a strong motive to do the deed, and he had control of the people who could carry it out. His employees have been charged with the crime. Did he order it? I doubt it. Sometimes the facts don't add up to the truth.

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