THE NAFTA GANG: The story and the furor



EDITOR'S NOTE: Mexican media coverage last week spotlighted a small U.S.publication which has come up against one of the most powerful families in Mexico -- allegedly linked to drug trafficking, money laundering and murder. PNS Associate Editor Mary Jo McConahay reports on the growing controversy involving the Hank family, which is spreading its business empire to the United States.



A binational David and Goliath battle is shaping up involving a powerful Mexican family linked by a U.S. agency to drugs and crime and a small, U.S.based Hispanic magazine who suggested they enjoy access to the Clinton White House.

El Andar, a magazine about Latino politics and culture based in Santa Cruz, CA. reports it has been notified of legal action if it does not retract a story profiling the well-known Hank family of Mexico. A letter from a law firm for the Hank-owned Laredo National Bank in Texas also demanded $10 million and approval of future articles.

In its Fall l999 issue, El Andar reported that the Laredo bank’s president, Gary Jacobs, attended a White House coffee August 23, l996 with President Clinton and contributed money to the Democratic National Committee.

It cited a 60-page notice from the Federal Reserve Board that cited violations and called for a public hearing that could bar financier Carlos Hank Rhon from "participating in any manner in the affairs of a United States depository institution." It described the Hank family as kingmakers in Mexican politics, and quoted a report from the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center which accused the Hank family of engaging in a vicious drug trade.

Family patriarch Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a billionaire, his son Carlos and another son, Jorge Hank Rohn, were businessmen spreading their empire to the United States, El Andar said. The letter from San Antonio attorney Ricardo Cedillo accused the magazine of lying.

"This is an untouchable family in Mexico doing business in the United States now for a number of years," said El Andar editor Jorge Chino.”But there is no way we can retract what we said. The information we have is true and the story was researched for a long time. They have no right to affect our freedom of speech." El Andar staff said they felt the tone of the letter was intimidating, implying physical threat. It ends with an admonition that "should you elect to do nothing you act at your own peril."

A request for response by Pacific News Service from Cedillo's office was unanswered. Cedillo told the Washington-based Hispanic Link Weekly Report the magazine’s staff were motivated by racism, using a rude Mexican Spanish epithet.

"These pendejos are being played to spread a campaign of misinformation" because the bank is owned by Mexicans, Cedillo said. Publisher and owner Jorge Chino and a majority of staff are Mexican-American or from other Hispanic groups.

In recent months other U.S. publications including the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News have run stories on the Hank family, including news of the U.S. intelligence report which said they pose a "significant criminal threat to the United States."

Chino said he believes El Andar, a 72-page quarterly with a circulation of l4,000 has been targeted because it is small and independent. "They’re trying to make a lesson out of us -- not to mess around with the Hanks, that people have to be careful."

In Mexico, El Andar has been a major story this week, including in the Mexico City daily La Reforma, and reported by the news agency Notimex, which counts some 800 subscriber newspapers and other global outlets. An interview with Chino was broadcast live by a nation-wide syndicate of radio stations. Mexican media appears to be using the El Andar case as both sword and shield.

By reporting its details and citing the original account, Mexican radio and newspapers can report indirectly on the Hank family, including allegations of political corruption, drug trafficking, animal smuggling, money laundering and murder, all without putting themselves directly on the spot.

"We are saying things they'd like to be saying but can't," said El Andar’s Julie Reynolds, who reported the original story. As news of the altercation spreads in Mexico, the magazine's editorial offices are receiving information about the Hanks from Mexican journalists.

“We’re willing to assume the role" of reporting on the Hanks, said Chino. Begun by Latino students in the l980's as a tabloid-style newspaper, a polished quarterly less than a year ago. Financially it is still “struggling," as one staffer said, "playing musical chairs with computers. “Funding comes from foundation and other donor money and an incipient advertising base.

The demand is costing legal fees "and time." El Andar's next issue, which appears Nov. 20, will look further at the Hank family businesses in the United States, and the law firms which represent them, Chino said.

© 1999 PNS