Earlier this year, the American Greyhound Track Owners Association, which is headquartered at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, took on a new member with a questionable, controversial past.
At the AGTOA's spring conference, held in Las Vegas, then-President Karen Keelan called MIR/Caliente the group's "newest and most supportive member."
MIR/Caliente is the largest sports betting organization in Mexico and owns the Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana. The man at the top of the company is Jorge Hank Rhon, a former mayor of Tijuana who's been accused of everything from money laundering to murder. In Mexico, his contentious past has earned him the nickname "Genghis Hank."
A New York State Inspector General's report from 2007 says Rhon "has been suspected by U.S. law enforcement and Mexican authorities of illegal money-laundering activities related to illicit drug trafficking, particularly with the Arellano Felix drug cartel based in Tijuana."
He's also one of Mexico's most notorious traffickers in exotic and endangered animals. In 1989, one of Rhon's cheetahs escaped and was hit by a pickup truck in Tijuana traffic. Before the police could set up a crime scene, the injured animal was taken away by Rhon's zoo guards. In 1991, he paid a $25,000 fine after a baby white tiger was found in his Mercedes as it crossed the border into Mexico.
Near his dog track in Mexico, he has a massive, bucolic playground. He has his own bull fighting ring where he watches fights from the front row. He reportedly has a private zoo that holds an estimated 20,000 animals, many of which are endangered.
An FBI-DEA task force investigated Rhon for money laundering in a case that involved Taesa Airlines and Loredo National Bank. A 1999 report from the Department of Justice says Rhon "is more openly criminal than either his father or his brother... and is regarded as ruthless, dangerous, and prone to violence."
The worst of the allegations against the AGTOA's newest partner, though, involves the murder of a journalist in Mexico. In April 1988, Hector "El Gato" Felix Miranda, a longtime critic of Rhon's, was assassinated on his way to work. Two of his security guards were convicted of the murder, though the well-connected Rhon was never charged.
ZETA, an independent newsweekly in Tijuana, still runs a regular, full-page ad with a photo of Miranda and the words: "Jorge Hank: Why did your bodyguards assassinate me?"
The Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) cited Rhon's company, Grupo Caliente, in three different public hearings, raising questions about their licensing suitability. From the New York report:
"Essentially, these companies were directed by the NGCB to conclude any contracts with Grupo Caliente and to not renew those contracts. Grupo Caliente's U.S. representative for simulcasting events in the United States and Mexico, Arturo Alemany Salazar (who operates a company called MIR International), came under similar scrutiny by the Puerto Rico Racing Administration (PRRA)."
The report concludes that Rhon's company is likely to use its position in the simulcasting and pari-mutuel business to launder drug money:
"To the extent that Grupo Caliente may be involved in money laundering, it could easily exploit its status as a licensed bookmaker to launder illicit proceeds through U.S. tracks' pari-mutuel wagering pools...It is a relatively simple matter for a licensed, out-of-country bookmaker to partner with an offshore rebate shop with access to pari-mutuel pools in the United States."
When reached by phone, Karen Keelan said she was unaware of Rhon's past. "This is new knowledge to me," she said, and directed questions to AGTOA's new president, Tim Leuschner.
Leuschner, who also runs the Jacksonville Greyhound Track, said he thinks Rhon has been mischaracterized.
"These are unproven allegations," Leuschner said of the many charges laid upon Rhon by various news organizations and U.S. agencies. "The government of Mexico has licensed [Rhon's company], and they've run a live race track for many years. In Mexico, if someone wants to write a slanderous article about someone, they can just do it. It seems nobody has to be responsible."
Leuschner says he's never seen the company -- or any representatives -- act in anything but a professional manner.
"As far as I'm conerned, [Rhon] has been a good customer," he said.
"In the racing business, you sell your races to people who are licensed. It's a highly regulated business. Unless someone can no longer receive a license, you usually still do business with them unless you have concrete evidence something is amiss."
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Leuschner explained that Caliente has been an associate member of the organization for years, despite not owning any tracks in America. He said the company applied for full membership this year.
"Most of their greyhounds come from American breeders, with American kennels," he said.
Leuschner said the decision to include MIR/Caliente -- and Jorge Hank Rhon -- was not a result of financial desperation. He said that company pays the same membership dues as every other track owner in the organization.
"Obviously these this is not the greatest of financial times," he said, "but the AGTOA is financially sound and was financially sound before they joined."