MEXICO CITY (AP) — He was the face of Mexico's federal government, the chief public servant carrying a message to stay tough and bringing new offensives to states beleaguered by drug violence.
The death of Mexico's No. 2 official, Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora, in a helicopter crash Friday was a stunning mishap too odd for some Mexicans to accept as an accident. But just like the loss of another interior minister three years ago in a plane crash, Blake Mora's death won't change the course of the deadly assault on organized crime.
Even as President Felipe Calderon choked back emotion in announcing the loss of "a great patriot ... a dear friend" in a crash that may have been caused by weather, he reiterated his resolve to pursue the war against cartels. It has cost more than 40,000 lives by many estimates, though the government has given no official figures since 35,000 deaths nearly a year ago.
"I am convinced that the best way to honor his generosity and loyalty ... is to intensify the struggle," Calderon said in a national address announcing Blake Mora's death along with seven others outside the capital. "We will continue with renewed vigor and zeal."
Though the secretary of the interior is considered the government's second-in-charge, other Cabinet members are more central to carrying out the drug war: the secretaries of defense, navy, public security and the attorney general. The people currently in those positions have been with Calderon through most of his term. Blake Mora, 45, who was appointed in June 2010, was the fourth interior secretary since Calderon was elected five years ago.
Mexico's interior secretary coordinates domestic policies such as security, human rights, migration and the president's relations with the legislature and opposition parties. The post has diminished in power over time. Under Mexico's old one-party system that ruled for 71 years, the secretary of the interior often went on to be president, but that changed when the autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency in 2000.
In his short time in the job, Blake Mora embodied the government's get-tough attitude toward drug cartels and other gangs, publicly pledging not to back 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 had said.
He was heading to a meeting of prosecutors in central Morelos state, which has been hit heavily by violence among warring cartels, when the Super Puma helicopter crashed in a hilly area southeast of Mexico City.
The political impact of Blake Mora's death is "relatively minor," said historian Lorenzo Meyer of the College of Mexico, adding that the position of interior secretary "is not remotely what it was ... it lost power in the new system."
Still, the crash adds to the public sense of tragedy the drug war has brought.
"Polls have been showing that insecurity now tops poverty as the No. 1 concern among Mexicans," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. "An event like this ... is going to increase the sense of uncertainty and insecurity."
The crash of the Super Puma helicopter, part of the presidential fleet, also killed the undersecretary for legal affairs and human rights, Felipe Zamora, two other interior officials, the chief of Blake Mora's security detail and three crew members, all air force officers who served in the equivalent of Mexico's Secret Service.
The helicopter left from a military base in Mexico City at 8:45 a.m. and 10 minutes later disappeared from radar, Transportation Secretary Dionisio Perez Jacome said at a news conference late Friday.
Perez Jacome, who read a statement and didn't take questions, said the government has asked U.S. and French aviation crash experts to help in the investigation.
"The federal government should open the investigation well beyond the secretary of communications and transport," said organized crime analyst Edgardo Buscaglia. "Three Cabinet secretaries falling from the sky is too much of a challenge to the laws of probability."
In 2005, during President Vicente Fox's administration, a helicopter crash blamed on poor weather conditions killed Mexico's top police official, public safety secretary Ramon Martin Huerta.
Despite tendencies to suspect a deliberate hit on a top Mexican official, initial indications are that Friday's crash was an accident, Calderon said.
He seemed to try to quell any suggestions of sabotage, saying that Blake Mora's helicopter "was always under guard" in the Secret Service hangar and that it had recently undergone maintenance. He said it was traveling in bad weather, something local residents confirmed.
"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 helicopter went down.
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.
In what many Mexicans find hard to believe was an odd coincidence, a Learjet slammed into a Mexico City street in 2008, killing former Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino and 15 others. That was blamed on pilot error, with the government issuing a detailed report on that accident in the face of even more persistent rumors that it was a drug-cartel hit.
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 funeral was scheduled for Saturday.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson, Michael Weissenstein and Isaac Garrido contributed to this report.