an iconic resort, a maybe murderer, & the birth of top-flight football in Tijuana
by Eben Lehman
It took decades, but in the end it was just a short journey to find something seemingly so far away: the transcendent football experience. On a Sunday morning in April, soccer fan Dean Mitchell leaves his home in San Diego and heads south towards the border. The barren desert geography doesn’t change much between his home and Tijuana, Mexico, but nearly everything else brightens once he passes that wall, including Dean’s mood. Crossing the border on foot it takes literally one step to enter a completely different world – away from a soccer niche to a land hot with football fever.
After years following a revolving door of lower-division San Diego soccer franchises – the Nomads, the Flash, various iterations of the Sockers, holding out hope for a MLS expansion team – Tijuana is where Mitchell finally discovered his personal sports mecca. Within the domain of his football odyssey, the guarded international boundary is nothing more than an imaginary line. And anyway, Tijuana is a hell of a lot closer than Los Angeles where the closest two MLS teams preside.
Mitchell steps through the border and slinks into one of the waiting cabs. Along Paseo de los Heroes, a major six-lane Tijuana thoroughfare with a tree-lined median, scattered red and black jerseys along the street become a massive swarm as Estadio Caliente nears. Sitting in the shadow of an enormous casino complex, this is the home ground of one of Mexico’s newest football teams: Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. The Xolos, as they are known by their fans (pronounced “show-lows”), take their name from a small hairless dog native to Mexico, a species revered by ancient Aztecs who considered them guide dogs to the underworld. Only four years old, the Xolos are hoping their chosen symbol will help guide them to the big time, to top-flight football.
photo by Fausto Vargas
As usual, the stadium is filled nearly to capacity with a raucous crowd of almost 20,000. With the pitch still empty of players, fans stand and cheer in eager anticipation. Finally the team emerges onto the field led by their mascot, “Perro,” a muscular half-dog, half-human cartoon figure running with a Xolo flag. He makes a beeline to the rowdy “la Masakr3” supporters section behind the south goal. They erupt flinging beer into the air. Bass-heavy music blasts through the arena speakers; a large inflatable Xolo head glares from the sideline; scantily-clad women circle the field with the namesake dogs on leashes. This is football in Tijuana. For Mitchell, this is American soccer.
The team plays in the second division of Mexico football, but if things go according to plan, the Xolos will be entering the top-flight Mexican Primera Division next season. As far as Mitchell is concerned, the move up is long overdue. “The atmosphere here is already better than most first division games,” he says. “The San Diego Union actually rated a Xolos game as the best atmosphere at a sporting event in the entire region.”
The ascendancy of the Xolos is an astonishing development for a city with limited football history, and one sitting both literally and figuratively on the periphery of the nation’s football landscape. Tijuana is actually closer to Vancouver, Canada, than the Mexican Football Federation headquarters in Mexico City. Nonetheless, the bright lights of first-division Mexican football have almost reached this distant edge of the national map.
While a top-flight football team would be a new step for Tijuana, it would not be the first time this far corner of Mexico climbed to the pinnacle of the sports and entertainment world. The Xolos may yet be a short story, but the team’s shallow roots stretch wide through unique characters and culture, from which rises the history of the ever-tumultuous Tijuana.
photo by Fausto Vargas
Watching the game from high above the crowd, hidden in one of the newly completed stadium suites, is Jorge Hank Rhon. His story with football is not uncommon: wealthy, prominent local figure starts pro football club. That is not to say he isn’t unusual. Hank Rhon is Tijuana’s version of Donald Trump, Jerry Jones, John Gotti, and Willy Wonka all rolled into one. Depending on whom you ask, the man known as “Senor Hank” may be alternately portrayed as a shrewd businessman, an unrepentant criminal, a generous philanthropist, or an entertaining eccentric. His billionaire politician father gifted Hank control of Tijuana’s historic but beleaguered Agua Caliente racetrack property in 1985. Before a football club, Senor Hank formed the Grupo Caliente company, now an international network of hotels, casinos, and shopping malls.
If you like your billionaires with a bit of flamboyant flair, then Hank is your man. He is the anti-Stan Kroenke. Larger than life is not large enough. Hank favors lavish decor, expensive artwork, and outlandish clothing. He often wears his lucky red crocodile skin vest. Sixteen years ago, a routine customs search of his luggage at the Mexico City airport revealed jackets made from ocelot fur, pearl-encrusted vests, carved elephant tusks, and sculptures made from precious stones. Hank’s drink of choice? A personal blend of tequila, aged with scorpions, cobras, and deer antlers, in which the penises of a lion, tiger, and dog are also soaked.
As much as he is known for his sprawling business network, Hank is also renowned for his private exotic animal collection. He professes a deep love for animals, claiming a boyhood where he helped nurse a wounded deer found near his house back to health. Over the years Hank has owned everything from grizzly bears, white tigers, lions, wolves, and jaguars to elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, ostriches, and zebras. He maintains a personal zoo and donates scores of animals to zoos in Mexico City and Tijuana. In 1992, customs agents stopped a car driven by one of Hank’s family members heading back into Mexico. Riding like a child in the back seat was a rare white Siberian tiger cub. The animal was seized, Hank was fined (the cub eventually made its way to the San Diego Zoo).
His office is a zoological park. That is not a metaphor. The room brims with terrariums of poisonous snakes and lizards, and cages holding tropical birds. In the summer of 2004, when asked by a reporter what his favorite animal was, Hank replied, “Woman.” He later dismissed it as an ill-received joke. Not conceived, mind you. To Hank it was your lack of humor that made the mistake.
For all his somewhat endearing eccentricities, there are those who will always associate Hank with money laundering, drug smuggling, and even murder. Many still demand answers for the 1988 killing of Tijuana newspaper editor Hector “Gato” Felix Miranda, who took pride in publishing negative portrayals of influential figures and attacking political corruption. One target of the journalist’s vitriol was Hank. The gruesome shotgunning of Felix in his car on his way to work tied back to two security guards employed by Hank. They were convicted, but the investigation stalled with barely a sniff of Senor Hank.
Some curse his name, but as these stories often go, many more love Hank for his generosity. Nearly every day he receives requests for money and assistance from Tijuana’s lower classes. He provides assistance where he pleases, even sponsors periodic large-scale gift giveaways to locals. He’s made numerous large donations to charities over the years and helped build several hospitals and schools.
In 2004 Hank rode this wave of goodwill to become mayor of Tijuana. He stumbled, though, while trying to take the next step up the political ladder. After just three years and an unsuccessful 2007 run for governor of the state of Baja California, his career in politics ended. So Hank refocused his attention back to his beginnings. Back to Agua Caliente.
Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack, which Hank took control of back in the 1980s, has a history as rich and flamboyant as its current owner. Built in the late 1920s by American Wirt G. Bowman and a group of investors, the extravagant Agua Caliente resort complex almost immediately became a world-renowned celebrity hotspot.
Agua Caliente Postcard circa 1930
Named for the natural hot springs found on the site, Agua Caliente featured a hotel, casino, bathhouses, and private bungalows when it opened in 1928. Immaculate landscaped grounds connected the sprawling complex of bright white stucco buildings with red tile roofs. Year-round it shined green, a captivating oasis in the desert. It was arguably the finest resort in the world. From the beginning, Agua Caliente catered to an almost exclusively American clientele; its list of patrons read like a who’s who of the era’s Hollywood elite, sports stars, and entertainment heavyweights: Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Buster Keaton, Rita Hayworth, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers.
In late 1929 a new two million dollar racetrack opened next to the casino, bringing world-class horse racing to Tijuana. That same year an Olympic-sized pool opened, along with a new country club built with an immediate aim of hosting professional golf tournaments. When the world’s greatest golfer of the era, Gene Sarazen, won the Agua Caliente Open in 1930, he was paid his five thousand-dollar prize with a wheelbarrow filled with 5,000 American silver dollars.
All together, Agua Caliente cost well over ten million dollars to build ($133 million in today’s money) but took just one year to earn a profit. By early 1930 the resort was clearing close to $500,000 in a single weekend.
Thanks in part to prohibition in the United States, business at Agua Caliente boomed. Wealthy Americans could spend weekends at the Tijuana resort gambling and drinking legally. And it wasn’t just tequila and cerveza at Agua Caliente. Try champagnes imported from a private French vineyard, the finest Scotch, green absinthe, and exotic cocktails. The extravagance and devoted following meant business stayed strong even after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933.
The resort could not, however, compete with a ban on gambling. The death knell for the Gatsby era at Agua Caliente came in 1935. That year a presidential order outlawed gambling throughout Mexico. Almost immediately the casino, racetrack, and hotel shut down. Over 1,000 local Mexicans on the Agua Caliente payroll lost their jobs. It was the end of an era. The party was over.
Two years later, as the desert began taking back the lush complex, a glimmer re-emerged. The racetrack reopened, and big-time horseracing resumed, albeit within a much smaller pond. On March 27, 1938, Seabiscuit entered the field of the revived Agua Caliente Handicap. Over 22,000 fans packed the racetrack to watch the legendary horse run to a two-length victory.
Agua Caliente Postcard circa 1930
The racetrack kept hope alive for Agua Caliente, but the squabbling over ownership of the property lingered on for decades after the initial collapse. The glory years would never return. Instead, various groups fought over operation of the track from one season to the next. It wasn’t glamorous, but southern California residents – including Mitchell’s father and grandmother – still traveled down to watch the races. Horse racing at Agua Caliente limped along until a large fire in the summer of 1971 reduced the facility to a pile of ashes and rubble.
In 1972, Mexico President Luis Echeverria visited Tijuana and referred to the charred ruins of the once-iconic racetrack as a “national disgrace.” At the president’s urging, businessman Fernando Gonzalez agreed to rebuild the facility from the ground up. Gonzalez formed the company “Hipodromo de Agua Caliente,” and with significant financial help from his friend Carlos Hank Gonzalez (Senor Hank’s father) began rebuilding the clubhouse and grandstand in order to bring world-class horse racing back to Tijuana. Fifteen million dollars ($80 million in today’s money) went into the reconstruction, a sum that raised a lot of eyebrows. Very few saw a bright future for the property. Once the oasis, Agua Caliente was now merely a mirage.
And so it was with very little fanfare that young Jorge Hank Rhon, still in his twenties, was handed control of the property in 1985. But Hank wouldn’t need outside fanfare, he proved to have a knack for creating his own spectacle. He made an immediate splash by hosting the Miss Mexico pageant at Agua Caliente, an event that somehow brought in 24,000 people. In 1986 Hank used his money and influence to bring the prestigious Clasico del Caribe horserace (known as the Kentucky Derby of Latin America) to the racetrack. It was the richest horserace ever run in Mexico at the time.
But it wasn’t enough. Hank expanded the sports book and off-track betting at the facility (now legal in Mexico), and though it brought in loads of money and built his personal wealth, it caused the track itself to become less important to the business. By the twenty-first century the famed racetrack dropped significantly in size to fit the only game in town, daily greyhound dog races.
For years Hank desperately wanted to bring a first division football team to Tijuana. He saw sports as a natural way to promote civic pride, to legitimize the city on the national stage, and bemoaned the void left by Tijuana’s lack of a dominant team. Back in the 1980s Hank himself commented that, “Here in Tijuana we like the Padres and the Chargers.”
Football is huge in Mexico, but Tijuana struggled through the years to support a steady stream of short-lived lower-division clubs. When a purchase of an existing Primera Division team proved to not be in the cards, Hank decided to alter his strategy. In January 2007 he bought the second division club Guerreros de Tabasco, moved them to Tijuana and rebranded the team Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. If there was one thing Agua Caliente still offered at that time, it was open space for a stadium.
The Tijuana Xolos began play as part of the Liga Ascenso, Mexico’s second division in 2007. Control of the team went to Hank’s son Jorge Alberto Hank Inzunza, who still serves as president of the club. Construction began on a new stadium, built on the casino property once part of the esteemed racetrack. Rising from the same dirt, literally the same ashes on which the top horses in the world used to run, the stadium opened in late 2007 with an initial capacity of 13,000. Unlike in the U.S. where taxpayers are often forced to pay part of the bill for professional sports stadiums, Xolos ownership has funded construction completely on their own. Ongoing expansion over the last three years has brought the total capacity over 18,000, and construction of a second deck with additional luxury suites continues.
photo by Rafael Maya
After an inconsistent few seasons, the Xolos made the semifinals of the playoffs in the spring of 2010, before finally breaking through for a title at the end of last year. With shrewd personnel decisions made by the young Jorge Alberto Hank and club vice president Gog Murguia, the team has grown into one of the most talented teams in the second division. While Senor Hank was an expert at growing international businesses, his son Jorge Alberto has proven to possess a masterful touch at building a successful football club. The Xolos won the Apertura season championship in December, earning themselves a spot in this spring’s promotion playoff between the year’s two winners (In Mexico one team is promoted each year, but since there are split seasons with separate champions – Apertura in the fall, Clausura in the spring – a playoff determines the team that makes the move). If the Xolos win the Clausura 2011 title this May, there will be no need for a playoff, as the team will be automatically promoted as champion of both seasons.
Not everyone is happy about the impending move. Some bristle at the team’s association with Hank and question the club’s direct link with gambling interests. Estadio Caliente sits literally a few hundred feet from a casino, and the main jersey sponsor is Hank’s Caliente company. The crux of this criticism is of course somewhat hypocritical. Sports gambling is legal in Mexico, and other teams in the Primera Division already have gambling sponsors. Grupo Televisa, for example, owns multiple teams and has considerable gambling interests under their corporate umbrella.
Despite being one of the five most populous cities in the country and a natural jumping off point to pull in American fans, some Mexico football officials openly question the suitability of Tijuana as a venue for the league. The most insidious implication is that Tijuana is too violent to host a first division team. Recently certain officials raised reservations over the safety of the city, comparing the situation to the Indios de Ciudad Juarez who played in the Primera for four seasons from 2008 to 2010.
The volatility in Juarez is far worse than in any other part of the country, and the problems with player safety on the Indios team were unique to that local area. Meanwhile, Tijuana violence declined this year. Most of the remaining violence isolates itself in marginalized areas of the city’s eastern section, far away from Estadio Caliente. Besieged by these criticisms of their team and their city, Xolos fans only strengthen their resolve.
photo by Rafael Maya
Dean Mitchell has been making his regular trip from San Diego to attend Xolos games since the opening of Estadio Caliente back in 2007. He watched the stadium evolve from a 13,000 seat horseshoe with port-a-johns and taco carts, to a nicely paved concourse with traditional concession stands and modern amenities. He knows just how much this team means to the city. “It’s huge,” Mitchell says. “I’m convinced Tijuana’s finest hour will happen in Estadio Caliente. Hopefully that will be in May when they ascend to the first division.”
A team on the national stage would serve as a unifying force for the citizens of Tijuana, and undoubtedly bring with it a new wave of civic pride. It would give every citizen something to take ownership of and has the potential to raise the city’s image on the national and international level. “Just a few years ago, kids growing up in Tijuana didn’t have many positive role models,” Mitchell says. “Now every kid wants to be like Raul Enriquez, the Xolos all-time leading scorer and first superstar.”
Promotion for Tijuana would also be great for the league, because it directly opens up the Southern California market. Once in the Primera, Xolos games will be televised every week on American television. Playing at a stadium less than three miles from the U.S. border also means that loads of new American fans will be making the trek across the border for matches, especially when the big clubs like Chivas, Club America, Pumas, and Cruz Azul come to town.
This is what Mitchell hopes to see. Along with a group of other fans from the San Diego area, he is working on establishing a formal traveling Xolos supporters group with chartered transportation to games from the U.S. side of the border (see http://www.xolos.us/ for more information).
“Americans will be pleasantly surprised by a more grown-up, less bawdy Tijuana,” Mitchell says. “The main boulevards are all freshly re-bricked, modern architecture and nightlife has improved remarkably, and there’s a great artistic community.” Asked what he would tell a soccer fan in the San Diego area considering attending a Xolos match, Mitchell answers without hesitation: “You’ll never be the same.”
On some level, Tijuana rising to the Mexican Primera after just four years of existence proves that in sports anything is possible. On the site where Hollywood’s yesterday partied and played, Tijuana is being reborn. The bright lights of Agua Caliente are returning, only this time they’re lighting up a football pitch, where the stars of tomorrow could soon come to play.
Eben Lehman (@GringoTuzo on Twitter) is a writer and connoisseur of all things Mexican football. He is a founder and editor of FMF State of Mind, a website featuring news, commentary, and discussion of the Mexican Primera Division and the Mexican national team.
Banner photo by Rafael Maya.
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