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Takes On Powerful
Allegations of corruption about the Hank clan have drawn mainstream attention to a small California magazine. But the family's lawyers have called the story 'plainly false.'
By ARMANDO ACUNA, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
SANTA CRUZ--Of all the people to pick a fight with, a feisty, fledgling Latino magazine based in this progressive seaside town chose Goliath--one of Mexico's richest and most powerful families.
El Andar, a bilingual quarterly
with a circulation of 10,000, big dreams and a tiny staff, published a
story in its fall issue accusing the wealthy Hank family of corruption
on both sides of the border. Combining information about the family previously
published in American and Mexican media with its own reporting, the magazine
pieced together a wide-ranging profile alleging the Hanks' involvement
in drug trafficking, animal smuggling, money laundering and the murder
of a Tijuana journalist. In doing so, the magazine has stepped on ground
not usually explored by mainstream Mexican media, which have traditionally
treated the country's most powerful families with deference.
The Hanks, say the magazine's
staff members, simply aren't used to critical media treatment and that
adds to the cross-border tension. By exercising its 1st Amendment rights
in a way that would be difficult in Mexico, El Andar is also striking
a blow for California's growing ethnic media and Latino journalism in
particular, say the magazine's supporters. But the giant has struck back.
A two-page letter from the law firm representing the Hank-owned Laredo
National Bank of Texas called the magazine's information "plainly
false and misleading." San Antonio attorney Ricardo G. Cedillo demanded
a retraction and an apology, $10 million for legal fees and expenses,
and approval of all future stories dealing with the Hanks and the bank.
The letter ended with the sentence: "Should you elect to do nothing,
you act at your peril."
In a prepared statement last
week, Cedillo said: "El Andar's article is inaccurate and is of questionable
journalistic due diligence. Beyond that, we are exploring our alternatives
to protect the interests and reputation of our client." Cedillo's
retraction letter demanded, among other things, that the magazine acknowledge
that the family "has never been accused of any wrongdoing involving
drug or money laundering activities." The magazine's publisher, Jorge
Chino, said he "was shocked" by the letter.
"I think they thought
. . . we would be so scared we would promise not to do this anymore, but
our story is right, our facts are right." The magazine's attorney
last month told the Texas attorneys there would be no retraction. The
Hanks' clout in Mexico, said the magazine, makes them untouchable by authorities
there. The family's business empire, the magazine contended, has spread
to the United States and includes control of the Texas bank.
In one of the few aspects of
the story that had not been reported elsewhere, El Andar noted that the
bank's president attended a White House coffee with President Clinton
in 1996 and contributed money to the Democratic National Committee. The
binational David and Goliath battle has attracted the attention of the
Mexican media, which have circulated El Andar's allegations widely.
In describing El Andar's story,
the Mexican media are able to say things about the Hanks that they usually
can't say because of the family's influence. Several Mexican reporters
have passed on tips to the magazine about the family which they have told
El Andar staffers they can't directly publish or broadcast in Mexico.
The Hank family is considered
an institution in Mexico. The patriarch, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, is a former
governor of the state of Mexico, mayor of Mexico City and secretary of
agriculture and tourism. He is widely acknowledged to be the leader of
the conservative faction of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary
Party (PRI), known as the "dinosaurs." He worked his way up
the political ladder from modest beginnings, building a business empire
of banking and transportation companies. Forbes magazine estimated his
wealth at more than $1 billion. His two sons, Carlos Hank Rhon and Jorge
Hank Rhon, are also wealthy businessmen.
As for El Andar, it is trying
to carve out a niche in the expanding national Latino market by focusing
on Latino commentary, literature, cultural trends and politics. It began
as a magazine a year ago, after several years as a monthly tabloid targeting
regional issues in Northern California. It runs on a shoestring and would
have trouble fighting a protracted legal war. A legal defense fund is
in the works. Part of the magazine's strategy is to take its story to
the media and to seek help and support from media groups. Placing the
furor in the spotlight, the magazine's supporters say, also affords El
Andar some protection. And if it also raises its 10,000 national circulation,
so much the better. The California First Amendment Coalition, for example,
put the magazine in contact with a libel lawyer. New California Media,
an association of 150 ethnic news organizations, has helped raise the
visibility of the dispute in the mainstream press.
Growing Demand for News
With more ethnic publications
directed at California's growing minority communities, there is great
interest in issues from people's home countries, said Sandy Close, founder
of New California Media.
"There's a fusion of news
that's of interest from the homeland and this country," she said.
"More and more, we're a world without borders." Why pick a fight
with a politically powerful family? "They are such a legendary family,"
said Chino, who left his native Mexico as a young man to escape political
repression and find economic opportunity. There was great discussion at
the magazine about doing the story, he said. In the end, "we decided
our strength is to talk about important Latino issues. . . . This is a
way for Latino journalism and publishing to gain some respect."
In choosing to write about
the Hanks, El Andar picked a family that often has been in the headlines,
sometimes for investigations of corruption. U.S. and Mexican officials
told The Times in 1995 that the family was the target of investigations
in both countries. The family was suspected of serving as a link between
the PRI and Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, a connection blamed for
political violence in Mexico. No charges were ever filed. In June of this
year, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News and the
Mexican newspaper El Financiero wrote stories about a new report
by the National Drug Intelligence Center, a U.S. Department of Justice
According to the stories, the
report said Carlos Hank Gonzalez and his two sons were so involved in
drug trafficking and money laundering that they "pose a significant
criminal threat to the United States."
Family spokesmen denied the
report's assertions. The elder son, Carlos Hank Rhon, who owns Laredo
National Bank, faces a Federal Reserve Board hearing next summer on allegations
that he violated various U.S. banking laws, including making self-funded
loans from the bank to his businesses. El Andar noted that the bank's
president, Gary Jacobs, met with Clinton at a White House coffee during
Clinton's reelection campaign in August 1996 and that he and his wife
gave more than $46,000 to Democratic causes.
The younger son, Jorge Hank
Rhon, lives in Tijuana and has extensive real estate and business holdings
in Baja California, the centerpiece of which is the Agua Caliente race
track. He was detained by U.S. Customs in San Diego in 1991. He was stopped
for trying to illegally transport a white Bengal tiger to Tijuana and
was fined $25,000 for possessing an endangered animal.
The most notorious incident associated with Jorge Hank is the 1988 ambush killing of Hector "Gato" Felix, co-founder and columnist with the respected Tijuana weekly newspaper Zeta. Felix's colleagues, in their writings, have repeatedly accused Jorge Hank of ordering the killing as part of a personal vendetta motivated in part by critical comments made in Felix's column.
Hank has denied the accusations.
The former head of security at Agua Caliente race track, and Jorge Hank's
longtime personal bodyguard, was convicted of the murder, as was a second
man who once worked as a security guard at the track.
El Andar staffers said they
plan to write about the family again. Julia Reynolds, the editor, who
wrote the Hank story, said the magazine will not be intimidated into silence.
"I'm sure they thought we are a tiny little bug they can squash,"
she said, "but that's not going to happen."