Mexico's top Cabinet secretary, Francisco Blake Mora, a key figure in the country's battle with drug cartels, died Friday in a helicopter crash that President Felipe Calderon said was probably an accident.
Blake Mora, 45, was the second interior minister, the No. 2 post in the government, to die in an air crash during Calderon's administration.
Despite some tendencies to suspect a hit on the top officials leading Calderon's offensive against organized crime, the crash that killed Blake Mora and seven others may have had to do with bad weather. A Learjet that slammed into a Mexico City street in 2008, killing former interior secretary Juan Camilo Mourino and 15 others, was blamed on pilot error.
One of Blake Mora's last postings on his Twitter account commemorated the loss of Mourino. "Today we remember Juan Camilo Mourino three years after his death, a person who was working to build a better Mexico," he tweeted on Nov. 4.
Blake Mora's death, while a blow to the government, is not likely to change policy or day-to-day operations.
Calderon, visibly emotional over the loss, said the Super Puma helicopter was flying in fog when it went down in a remote area southeast of Mexico City. Still, he said all possible causes were under investigation. He said the pilot had sufficient expertise.
"Mexico has lost a great patriot ... and I lost a dear friend," said Calderon, who struggled to maintain composure at one point during an address to the country. "He was not only an exemplary minister, he was an exemplary Mexican."
President Barack Obama called Calderon to offer his condolences.
Calderon appeared to try to quell any suggestions of sabotage, saying Blake Mora's helicopter "was always under guard" in the hangar of Mexico's equivalent of the Secret Service and that it had recently undergone maintenance.
Authorities said the undersecretary for human rights, Felipe Zamora, was among the seven others killed, including the pilot.
Calderon appointed Blake Mora as interior secretary in July 2010. That put him in charge of co-ordinating domestic policies including security, human rights, migration and the president's relation with the legislature and opposition parties.
Blake Mora was travelling to a prosecutors' meeting in the neighbouring state of Morelos when the helicopter went down in a mountainous area of Chalco in the state of Mexico on the border with Mexico City.
"In the morning, there was a whole lot of fog," said homemaker Marisol Palacios, who lives on the lower slopes of the hill where the crash occurred.
Started in Tijuana
She said she didn't hear the crash and wasn't aware anything had happened until helicopters carrying rescue teams arrived. Video of the wreckage suggested the helicopter plowed into the hillside and broke in half, but did not explode or burn.
Blake Mora started his political career in the mid-1990s as an official in his native Tijuana and served as a federal congressman through the 2000s, as well as interior secretary of Baja California.
As Calderon's point man in the government's war against organized crime, he frequently travelled to the country's most dangerous places for meetings with besieged state and local security officials.
He was an embodiment of the Mexican government's get-tough attitude, publicly pledging to bring the fight to the traffickers instead of backing down.
"Organized crime, in its desperation, resorts to committing atrocities that we can't and shouldn't tolerate as a government and as a society," he said.
He also oversaw response to disasters, such as flooding and the massive oil pipeline explosion that laid waste to parts of the central city of San Martin Texmelucan last year, killing at least 28 people.
Funeral scheduled for Saturday
He led the creation of a new national identity card for youths under 18, with modern features including digitalized fingerprints and iris images, to prevent criminals from using false IDs.
Blake Mora's funeral was scheduled for Saturday.
Calderon cancelled many of his appearances, including a trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting of world leaders in Hawaii next week.
"Polls have been showing that insecurity now tops poverty as the No. 1 concern among Mexicans, and my sense is an accident like this or an event like this ... is going to increase the senses of uncertainty and insecurity," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Suspicions commonly swirl around the deaths of prominent people in Mexico. It was hard for many to believe that two interior secretaries could die in air accidents in the same administration.
"This is very unfortunate," said Sinaloa Congressman Manuel Clouthier, whose own father, a popular politician in Calderon's National Action Party, died in a still-unexplained highway accident in 1989. "There are many coincidences because now we have two interior ministers [lost] in one presidential term … who knows if we'll ever really know what happened."
In the crash that killed Mourino, the jet smashed into rush-hour traffic in a posh Mexico City business district, killing all nine on board and seven on the ground. Mexican investigators blamed the Learjet 45 crash on the turbulence from a larger plane flying ahead.
The investigation found that the pilots were slow to follow the control tower's instructions to reduce speed and appeared to be nearly one nautical mile too close behind a Boeing 767-300 on the same flight path to Mexico City's international airport.
Also killed in the crash was former anti-drug prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who had been the target of at least one previous assassination plot.
The Mexican government provided a detailed account of the crash aimed at quelling widespread rumours that the plane was brought down by powerful and increasingly violent drug cartels.
In 2005, a helicopter crash blamed on poor weather conditions killed Mexico's top police official, public safety secretary Ramon Martin Huerta, who was head of federal police, and seven other people.