Inside Tijuana’s Xolos, the unique club bridging the US-Mexico divide and bringing hope to a troubled city

Inside Tijuana’s Xolos, the unique club bridging the US-Mexico divide and bringing hope to a troubled city

His unruly beard and stylishly unkempt hair is straight California cool, a rockstar from a countercultural era, maybe the US in the 1960s. A Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead type figure. That’s some days. Other days he’s an urban cowboy, sheathed in expensive leather jackets with a full-brim Stetson hat. His demeanour, oozing with confidence that flirts with danger – a certainty of his words and actions that comes from a feeling of having nothing to lose – makes him look more like a narcotraficante of the highest rank.

Then other days he’s the clean-shaved professional, outfitted in low button shirts or even more formal attire – a businessman going for lunch on the French Riviera or a movie star taking time off between shoots. He’s the scion of a patriarchal dynasty worth well in excess of $1bn. He’s a greyhound and horse racing entrepreneur and the owner of Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente, or Xolos de Tijuana.

Jorge Hank Rhon is many men to many people, an effervescent and ephemeral figure with the reinventability of Carlos the Jackal. It’s necessary. Football man. Family man. Businessman. Each full stop separating those titles are unofficial epithets of a magnetic figure. Ties with drug trafficking, large-scale crime and corruption, and murder have hindered his mainstream acceptance by Mexican society. He doesn’t care. Somehow, that only draws him to them.

Despite coming from a wealthy family – one of Mexico’s most reputed – Hank Rhon has a folkloric appeal, shrouded in mystery, an attractive figure that no one can pinpoint exactly what they are attracted too. He’s enigmatic, cool and contradictory, a true living representation of Tijuana. His ownership and construction of Xolos reflects them both – city and man – making for one of world football’s most interesting sides. Nothing about this story’s Holy Trinity – man, city and club – is normal. To understand Xolos is first to understand who and where they came from.

Tijuana is a Mexican-American border city, the largest in Baja California. With its geography comes the geopolitics associated with other Mexican states on the border – Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Léon and Tamaulipas. Crime is associated with these states whose cities stand defiant, looking over at America as a stark reminder of the failed War on Drugs. Separating them from both is a vast stretch of desert with various walls and instruments of separation along the way. Guards man watchtowers and check-points, policing the entry and exits of each country, confusing who they don’t want to let in with who they don’t want to let out. 

Bordering San Diego, California, on the American side is Tijuana. Perched at Mexico’s north-westernmost corner, it’s a city with beaches, sun and vibrant culture – the same characteristics of its American neighbour. The name itself – Tijuana – elicits nefarious thoughts in the American conscience, evoking images of no man’s land frontier where sex and violence is the currency. A changing city, it struggles to shake that reputation, from Americans and Mexicans alike. Xolos are a part of its rebranding process.

Doused with the outlaw mythology of the Old West, Tijuana’s roads are folkloric capillaries that connect a city with infinite tales. During the American depression, pocket-sized cartoon pornographic magazines were published as a form of cheap entertainment to momentarily alleviate the burden of existence during one of the bleakest chapters in American history. Dubbed the Tijuana Bibles, these crude handfuls of joy were rumoured to have been smuggled over the border from Mexico. This lore, which had little truth beyond mere marketing ploy, was sold to men in ballrooms, bowling alleys and barbershops by the boxload.

Owners recollect the electric feeling of the books; not just the obscene stories and graphics, but imagining the hardships the flimsy package had endured to reach their hands. To Americans at the time, Tijuana was still a million miles away. It is this idea that prevails when the city is mentioned. Rather than a place, it’s a byword for a much more significant concept. 

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Becoming a key strategic point for drug traffickers further built on this outlaw mythology. Modernised and “civil” now, it was thought of as a rough place full of bandits throughout modern history, and the Hank family have a leading role in this most contradictory of places. They’ve fed into the seductive image of a lawless land by building casinos and being blacklisted from entry into the United States – on numerous counts of arms and drug charges – whilst also doing their part in revitalising and legitimising the city. It’s safer yet more dangerous than ever before. There are two sides – theirs and ours.

Part of that effort to clean-up Tijuana was the football club. The Hank family’s deep ties to Tijuana can be traced to the earliest settlements and the establishment of the Agua Caliente Casino and Hotel. When built in 1928, the casino quickly began to lure thrill-seekers to the city, creating Tijuana’s earliest boom-time. A racetrack the following year consolidated it as the place to go to spend, and hopefully win, some money. A true institution, indelibly tied to the city and its reputation, Agua Caliente entered the Hank family in 1971, with Jorge Hank Rhon becoming the latest heir to its throne.

It’s on this land that he chose to build Xolos’s stadium. It makes sense too. Tijuana is the fastest-growing city in Mexico, with 80,000 people moving there annually, making it a prime spot for future investment and the movement of capital. Consolidation of interests nucleates power and wealth, something the Hank family have become masters of, and by housing the stadium in such a reputed site, Xolos can access a lively and wealthy crow