Interior Minister Francisco Blake Mora, the second most powerful figure in the Mexican government and a top security official, died Friday when his helicopter crashed outside Mexico City.
Blake, who often was spokesman for Mexico’s controversial 5-year-old war against drug cartels, was found dead along with seven others when searchers located their fallen aircraft, which had not been heard from for more than an hour.
President Felipe Calderon said the crash could have been caused by bad visibility. Some news reports said the flight was hampered by fog. A recent cold front has at times draped the capital region in clouds, rain and fog.
Blake is the second interior minister under Calderon to die in an air crash. Juan Camilo Mourino was killed when his plane went down in Mexico City in November 2008, an event Blake marked last week in a Twitter message that would be his last.
Officials said the doomed helicopter, which belonged to the presidential guard, was bound for Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, where Blake was to meet with judicial officials from various states.
The list of victims also included the deputy interior minister for legal affairs and human rights, Felipe Zamora Castro, and ministry spokesman Jose Alfredo Garcia Medina.
The crash brought numerous messages of condolence, including from such groups as Amnesty International, which has often criticized Calderon’s anti-crime strategy.
Calderon canceled a trip to Hawaii, where he was to attend a summit of North American leaders. Congress observed a moment of silence. A memorial ceremony is planned for Saturday.
“Blake was not only an exemplary public servant, he was an exemplary Mexican, honest, hardworking, loyal, patriotic and committed to the best causes of Mexico,” Calderon said on television, his voice cracking.
There was no immediate word on a possible replacement.
Calderon said cloudy conditions along the flight path pointed to a possible weather-related accident. In an apparent effort to stem speculation about foul play, he said the helicopter was closely protected on the ground by the presidential guard and had been recently serviced.
Televised images showed debris scattered in a linear pattern across a sloping field. The wreckage appeared largely confined to one area, a possible sign the craft was intact when it hit. News reports said the helicopter, which they identified as a Puma, dated to the 1980s.
But in conspiracy-minded Mexico, Blake’s death is sure to revive suspicion that has circulated since the crash that killed Mourino and Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a presidential advisor who had headed the organized crime unit of the federal attorney general’s office.
Although authorities concluded that their Learjet 45 went down after being caught in turbulence caused by a larger plane, many Mexicans remained convinced that the 2008 crash was the work of assassins, perhaps drug lords.
In Mexico’s centralized system, the interior minister holds a sprawling and powerful portfolio, from overseeing immigration and casinos to responding to natural disasters and supervising religious affairs.
The 45-year-old Blake, who was formerly government secretary in the state of Baja California, was often called upon to explain and defend the Calderon administration’s drug strategy. About 45,000 people have died nationwide — mostly as a result of fighting among drug gangs — since Calderon declared war on the cartels in late 2006, according to unofficial tallies by Mexican media.
Blake, a member of Calderon’s National Action Party, or PAN, was frequently in the hot seat, as the government’s point man on a variety of controversial issues.
Since taking office, he had negotiated with fired electrical workers, union representatives, drug-war critics and rebellious lawmakers. And he had been mentioned as a possible future PAN candidate for governor of Baja California.