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 crowd.

The Hank family have pedigree in the Mexican state, officially and privately. In 2017, a merger between Mexican financial institutions Banorte and Grupo Financiero Interaccions was proposed, and by August 2018 the move had become effectively complete. Both Jorge’s brother Carlos Hank Rhon and Carlos’ son Carlos Hank González Jr hold presiding roles in each bank. Bringing the two together created Mexico’s second most powerful financial organisation. Carlos inherited the dynasty’s banking heritage from his and Jorge’s father, Carlos Hank González Sr. Where Carlos was the straight arrow, Jorge was undeniably charismatic, yet somewhat of a black sheep.

Carlos Hank González Sr was one of modern Mexico’s most respected powerbrokers, exerting influence over politics and business to the extent of being called “the most powerful fixture in Mexican politics for 30 years” by the New York Times. With the public power he yielded came a more nefarious side too. Alongside sons Carlos and Jorge, Hank González was deemed a threat to American security due to his ties with leading Mexican drug lords. 

A big name in finance and transportation, connections in these sectors helped move drugs and money around for major cartels, making Hank González a key link between the government and traffickers. Although it has been claimed and maintained that this is a smear on the Hank family, and that that is why the family have yet to be successfully prosecuted for this, it’s just as likely that US-Mexican relations would have been at stake had moves been made on him or his sons, such is the enormity of their influence. Largely free to do their business, the Hank empire grew.

Jorge’s links to gangland aren’t too hard to imagine, after a 2011 weapons incident saw him arrested in a pantomime of justice after police found 88 guns and upwards of 9,000 rounds of ammunition in his house. Various other charges, from undeclared goods to ordering a murder have been lodged, yet none stuck. Héctor Félix Miranda, an investigative journalist, working at a paper called Zeta that focuses on the complex web of Mexican criminality, often lampooned Hank Rhon, using investigative techniques to make allegations about his conduct.

Miranda was assassinated in 1988 as a man with known enemies in high places. The police had to fling their net wide. It could have been all manner of groups or individuals that had been scorned and held accountable in the infamous pages of Zeta. Shockwaves rippled through Mexico’s public and political spheres when two men were eventually arrested and the following police work flagging up one crucial commonality between the men – they both worked at Hank Rhon’s racetrack. This finding sent shockwaves and shivers throughout Tijuana townfolk.

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Through his football club, he is able to bridge the gap between Jorge the Tycoon, Jorge the Mobster and Jorge Friend of The People more effectively than any other well-crafted piece of media propaganda. Playing their home matches at the Estadio Caliente in Tijuana, Baja California, an incredibly easy-on-the-eye stadium that’s half Latin American bowl and half American college football ground, it is located centrally in the city – an accessible spot for locals and tourists. Hot red cladding on the outside and matching seats inside make it an aerial marvel, an electric bolt of energy emanating from the surrounding landscape. 

The Estadio Caliente is a work in progress, with 27,333 seats. That ‘333’ is no coincidence, it’s part of Hank Rhon’s superstition and once the current work on the ground is complete, it will see the capacity at an even more OCD-soothing 33,333. It’s worth noting that on its original completion, the number was 13,333.

Then there’s the red, to which Hank Rhon insists is everywhere. The stadium, as discussed, is a big red bowl. The kits are red too, right down to the finest detail. To play for the club means to adhere to their boot-rule. Yes, those must also be red. If you can’t find the boot you like in red (and you play for Xolos), then you’re expected to get a custom pair made or, as some players have resorted to doing, just spraypainting them. 

Myth-building is no foreign notion to Hank Rhon, whose cult-of-personality has seen him take the city’s mayoral seat, and his club is evidently no different. Even the origin of the crest is a case of Chinese whispers, becoming embellished over beer and tacos by the club’s adoring fans. His love of the Xoloitzcuintli breed is no secret, particularly his love for one of his former dogs Hermoso, whose likeness is etched on the club’s logo – originally intended as a design for his famous kennel. 

Resplendent in two-tone, it looks brave, almost heroic – a truly fearless figure entirely worthy of its place over the player’s hearts. It’s a Mexican breed that’s over 3,000 years old and hairless, not too far from a Chihuahua. The Aztecs believed the breed to be sacred and they have since become a status symbol in Mexico. As bizarre as they are beautiful, they embody everything about the club and its owner. He loves them so much that he once wore a leather biker vest made from their skin. More interesting, perhaps, is why Jorge Hank Rhon loves the breed in the first place. 

Mexican artist Diego Rivera, particularly well-known for his large scale murals depicting national folklore and mythology – or better known as husband to Frida Kahlo – is said to have given a xoloitzcuintli to Hank Rhon’s father. The family instantly fell in love with the breed, best known in Mexico as an Aztec demi-God, created by Xolotl to guard those living and guide the newly dead to a safe afterlife.

Hermoso was the rare red version of the breed, famed for its awards due to being a perfect incarnation of the legendary dog. In honour of him, the club gained its name and obsessive colour scheme. Incidentally, he’s also one of Mexico’s most notorious exotic animal smugglers – once even being caught with an extremely rare white Siberian tiger at the border that ended up residing in San Diego Zoo. 

A conceptually-driven project, the owner’s eccentricity bears a dark humour, yet there’s still the light-hearted and intentional humour for fans of Xolos. When their supporters talk about the club, they have ve a plethora of adjectives for it, but one word you’ll hear most of them using is “fun”.

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Bucking the trend of cheerleaders in the US or youth sides playing in the UK, Xolos once had the Neymar Challenge as their half-time entertainment. Fans went onto the field and rolled along the ground to see who could get furthest in a bid to be rewarded for the best interpretation of the Brazilian’s amateur theatrics, poking fun at his display against Mexico. It’d be easy to think of Xolos as some kind of joke club, a mere ego-driven project of a nutty mind, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

They’re ahead of the curve of many of their Mexican counterparts. Again, like with their identity, geography has a lot to do with this. Tijuana as a football city has a sense of the ideological no man’s land that helped birth Austria’s Wunderteam, who reconciled the differences between working-class physicality and middle-class intellectualism. It is a blank and fertile slate, with fearless ideas bubbling on the frontier. Xolos as a club are like a pioneering science lab, shrouded by mystery and excitement, a lot of which actually comes down to their on-field exploits, despite everything that happens off it, too.

Having a substantial business pedigree, Hank Rhon has built a sustainable system of scouting that relies on a network not only in Mexico but north of the border, plucking talented young Americans from their home cities with the opportunity to play at the highest level in a new land of promise. Xolos have academies dotted throughout the US; their system is famed and so far has brought through current young players like Jonathan Esparza, Ángel Uribe, Brian Peréz and Ernesto Espinoza, who all play within the Xolos system alongside making waves on the international stage for the US.

It isn’t just in youth that the development system in Tijuana is renowned. The Mexican side are also nourishing established American talent that might have gone overlooked in the US and who are now turning out for their national side too. Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo, Greg Garza and Paul Arriola caught their second wind in the lively training camps of Tijuana. 

What Xolos and Mexican football offered these players was an opportunity that America didn’t. Just as some North American players will move on to Europe, whilst others stay in America’s collegiate system, the Mexican route, paved by the Xolos Academy, is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative option, manifesting their motto of El Equipo Sin Fronteras (The Club Without Borders).

It has reaped results in a country whose domestic football is traditionally dominated by América, Guadalajara and Toluca. Xolos stand a real chance of breaking that old established order. They joined Liga MX in 2011 and won it in 2012. It was a great start and as Jorge The Politician knows, a great piece of propaganda to lure new faces and continue their push towards growth on all fronts. Whilst their success since then hasn’t matched that early promise, keeping the club’s relative youth in mind, there’s a lot more to come. Many seem to hope that these enfants terribles have already seen their best days. I’d wager that they certainly haven’t.

This early success helped two-fold: as a statement to fans from Mexico but also as a siren to football fans north of the border who mightn’t have a local side, or who, like many Americans, are only being turned onto the wonders of spherical football more recently. Xolos take a lot of their fans, like their players, from the US border states. It’s a haphazard day out for these American fans, with football only a part of the attraction. 

Gambling, entertainment and the kind of laissez-faire ethos to life in general – that is all but destroyed by American bureaucracy, laws and regulations – attract people looking for a bit of a thrill with their football. That and the considerably cheaper beer.

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Understandably, for a proud Mexican, being ‘Americanised’ is a source of scorn. Rivals use this against Xolos as a sign of weakness, even betrayal. On the surface, it’s easy to accept as truth that Xolos are little more than Uncle Toms. The Stars and Stripes seem to be just as prevalent as Mexican flags at matches. Oftentimes, fans will hold both. It’s an against-the-grain sentiment at the moment, with tensions between the American government and its acolytes at an all-time high. Even “border” itself seems a contentious word in public discourse and diction.

Xolos are, by mistake or design, a sort of bridge between the two. It’s not like two cultures are living side-by-side in harmony as much as coalescing in the stands. Characteristics of American sporting fandom have no doubt infiltrated the side, but as it happened so early, Xolos fans haven’t really known anything else. They’re not “becoming Americanised”, as travelling fans chant, but were born as a hybrid side – not Mexican or American – a feeling articulated by Roberto Conejo, an early director at the club and architect of this idea.

Spotting the early potential, Conejo said in 2011: “The philosophy of Club Tijuana is to be a regional team.” This is opposed to national. The region he refers to here is California/Baja California, where an attitude and ethos doesn’t end at a partition. Xolos don’t just take players from other sides though. The club have developed a farm side, Dorados, best known for Diego Maradona’s short stint as their manager, or the club that Pep Guardiola’s playing career came to a close at.

Xolos are a team aiming for a dynasty. To win trophies and develop a footballing identity takes time, and also infrastructure. A key part of this is Dorados, a Sinaloa-based team competing in Mexico’s second tier. Calling north-western Mexico’s Culiacán home, the club attained a handsome second-place finish in the Clausura of last year’s Ascenso MX and look set to continue their own trajectory both as part of, and separate to, Xolos. 

Officially viewed as an affiliate side, eyebrows were raised when Maradona was announced as the manager. Knowing the reputation of the man and of those behind the club he was going to, fans couldn’t help but imagine what kind of cocktail was being mixed. Although his tenure was short-lived, with health reasons behind his departure, Dorados gained the footballing world’s attention. 

Maradona’s spell at the club went by scandal-free and, if nothing else, was a good publicity move by the effervescent Jorge Hank Rhon. This unknown club, founded in 2003, had everyone checking their results for a while, as enchanted as we still are by Maradona’s mystical magnetism.

Newfound international reputation aside with Dorados, Xolos have paradoxically been a club as quiet as it is loud. Whilst a lot of the subsidiary stuff like red boots and particularly numbered seating arrangements have received a lot of attention, the side have also brought in top talent as part of the management staff to supplement their academy efforts, and done so without a song and dance.

Their most recent managerial swoop contributes to the holistic image of a club that appeals to two markets After a poor season in 2018 (15th place), Xolos decided to bring in a new manager – Oscar Pareja from FC Dallas. Sustained success there led to his new role in Tijuana, and a promising start to the Mexican side’s pre-season bodes well for this new partnership. For Pareja, it’s going to be a project. For Hank Rhon, it always has been his life’s work.

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Before he was a manager at Dallas, Pareja played for them, followed by a role at their academy where he fostered a reputation for his ability to develop players, bringing a lot of talent through to Major League Soccer. It was from this role as the head of their esteemed academy that he graduated to manager.

Although Xolos have the backing of a billionaire, their emphasis remains on developing their own players and spotting future stars from US academies. With this criteria, plus his evident loyalty, Pareja seemed like a natural evolution in the club’s maturation.

Xolos are one of the most exciting teams in global football, a side with a clear vision, one that seems split between billionaire’s fantasy and a genuine gift to his city. Still, uncertainty, suspicion and murder are never far away from the country, the city or the club. Xolos’ female equivalent, Xolas, were a popular side, playing first in the US, waiting until Mexico developed their own female league. In 2018, one of the club’s founding members, star players and driving figures was murdered. 

As with so much in Tijuana, there’s the “truth” and the truth. Through the former, we can begin to surmise about the latter, whilst acknowledging that no answers will come easily. Some facts do exist, though. Marbella Ibarra was 46 when her bruised and battered body was discovered in Rosarito, south of Tijuana. Visible signs of torture and a publicly dumped corpse are a calling card of Mexico’s brutal factions – from cartels to death squads – that are vying for power. 

Following the narrative of Mexican gang violence and the public nature of the crime, it has led Mexican police and investigators to the belief that the incident was to set an example – of what, though, is less clear. A crusading career, first establishing a football team through income from her beauty salon, before building the Xolas, Ibarra finally saw her dream come true in 2017 as Mexico recognised a professional female league.

At the beginning of the year of Ibarra’s murder, a women’s final pulled in 50,000 spectators, a record attendance for women’s football and an indication of the trajectory that she had worked towards launching.

A violent city, where 2017 saw 1,750 murders – around four per day – those who build a reputation can’t help but be shaped by it. With Jorge Hank Rhon, the relationship is reciprocal. He’s also powerful enough to shape his and that of the club in Mexican football. 

Jorge Hank Rhon fully embodies the city that, like him, wears many masks. Tijuana is the beach resort; the naughty neighbour for Americans; the sun, the slots and the vibrant streets. In the middle of these behemoths, of exciting city and of the immensity of a character like Jorge Hank Rhon, is Xolos, the football club that’s quickly growing out of its city’s negative reputation and that of its owner. Xolos is starting to become something else entirely: a sign of hope, orchestrated by those who cheer on the club every week. Xolos isn’t just a product of Tijuana. It could be its saviour. 

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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