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Mexican Interior Minister, 7 Others, Killed in Helicopter Crash

Mexico’s second-highest leader after the president was killed along with seven other people when a helicopter crashed south of the capital yesterday.

Interior Minister Francisco Blake Mora’s helicopter crashed en route to Cuernavaca from Mexico City in an area where foggy conditions reduced visibility, Communications and Transportation Minister Dionisio Perez-Jacome said in a televised speech yesterday. Blake Mora was traveling to the city for a meeting with judicial officials.

While the government continues to investigate the cause, the climatic conditions “certainly have us thinking of the probability it was an accident,” President Felipe Calderon said in a separate televised speech. The helicopter had been guarded at all times by the presidential security unit and underwent rigorous maintenance, he said.

“He was above all a great Mexican who deeply loved his country and served it until the last moment of his life,” Calderon said of Blake Mora.

Mexico has called in international aviation investigators, Perez-Jacome said. Video footage of the crash site showed grassy terrain spotted with trees and the wreckage mostly removed from the site.

The interior minister coordinates policy between Mexico’s security forces and oversees the administration’s relations with Congress, response to natural disasters and the monitoring of dissident groups.

Crew Members

Eight passengers and crew members were on board, including Deputy Interior Minister Felipe Zamora and spokesman Jose Alfredo Garcia.

The helicopter was built in 1983 and acquired by the Mexican government in 1987, Mexico City-based daily Milenio reported yesterday on its website. It was set to be retired after almost 28 years of use, the daily said, citing government documents.

Calderon canceled a trip to attend the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Hawaii after the crash, the presidential office said in a statement posted on the Twitter website. Calderon said during his speech that Deputy Interior Minister Juan Marcos Gutierrez will assume Blake Mora’s responsibilities.

Blake Mora, 45, entered politics in his native Tijuana in the 1990s. A lawyer by training, he served in Congress for Calderon’s National Action Party from 2000 to 2003. He then returned to Baja California, eventually becoming the No. 2 state official at a time that drug-fueled violence began to ease. Calderon named him Interior Minister in July 2010.

“In this fight, there is no room for truce or hesitation or experimentation,” Blake Mora said during a press conference in Mexico City on Oct. 19 to announce reinforced security measures in northern Mexico.

Tijuana Violence

“No doubt he contributed to the reduction of violence in Tijuana,” said George Grayson, professor of government at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in a phone interview.

Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said in a phone interview that Blake Mora was “critical for the Calderon administration’s efforts to address security concerns and political reform.”

Blake Mora is the second interior minister in Calderon’s administration to die in an aviation accident. Juan Camilo Mourino died along with other security officials when their Learjet plane crashed in a Mexico City neighborhood three years ago. Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who served as former President Vicente Fox’s top prosecutor against organized crime, also died in the crash, which killed 15 people. The government blamed the incident on pilot error.

Mechanical Failure

“I truly hope this tragedy is the result of mechanical failure, rather than a vile crime, but many observers will note that two interior secretaries have died in aerial accidents in the space of five years,” Selee said.

A helicopter crash outside the capital in 2005 killed Fox’s security chief Ramon Martin Huerta and a federal police commissioner along with seven others.

Calderon’s government is locked in a battle with drug trafficking organizations that has led to the deaths of around 43,000 people since he took office in December 2006.

The state of Morelos, where Blake Mora was heading, was a base of operation for the so-called Beltran Leyva Cartel, which security officials say has splintered since Mexican marines gunned down its leader Arturo Beltran-Leyva in a Cuernavaca condominium in 2009.

Drug Gangs

Alejandro Schtulmann, research director for Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis, a Mexico City consulting firm, said it’s unlikely that drug gangs had a hand in the chopper’s crash because they wouldn’t stand to benefit from his removal.

“I don’t think he was the mover and shaker” in the drug war, Schtulmann said in a telephone interview from Mexico City. “As interior minister, he would coordinate things in a more general way.”

Mexico’s peso pared gains yesterday and briefly fell from its previous close after the government said Blake Mora was killed. The currency was little changed at 13.5395.

Mexico’s benchmark peso bonds fell, while the IPC Index of Mexican stocks briefly trimmed its increase before closing at 37,555.65, 2.6 percent higher than the previous close.

“If they confirm that it was some sort of assassination, the risk perception would change in the short run,” said Jorge Lagunas, who manages about $200 million at Mexico City-based Grupo Financiero Interacciones SA. “Until then, I think absolutely nothing is changing.”

President Barack Obama said he was “shocked and saddened” about Blake Mora’s death and called Calderon from Air Force One yesterday, according to an e-mailed statement from the White House.

Memorial services are planned for today.

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