President Felipe Calderon said Saturday the loss of Mexico's No. 2 official in a helicopter crash won't weaken the offensive against drug cartels and, if anything, will toughen it.
Speaking at a memorial service, Calderon said the best way to pay tribute to Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora and the seven others killed Friday when their aircraft smashed into a mountainside south of Mexico City is "to keep fighting with greater conviction for the things they fought for."
Blake Mora had been the face of the government's drug war, carrying a message to stay tough and bringing new offensives to states beleaguered by drug violence. He was on his way to a meeting of prosecutors when he died.
"The best way to honor these citizens ... is to step up the efforts to transform Mexico into the country they wanted," Calderon said at a military field where thousands of people, including Cabinet members, governors and relatives of Blake Mora mourned the crash victims.
As a military orchestra played a march, Calderon stood for several minutes on a red carpet next to Blake Mora's coffin, with the other seven caskets lined up behind him amid an honor guard of hundreds of soldiers.
The president then offered his condolences to Blake Mora's wife and children and gave them a portrait of Blake Mora and the Mexican flag that covered his coffin during the vigil. Blake Mora's body was to be cremated later Saturday and the ashes taken to his native Tijuana.
Calderon had choked back emotion Friday when he announced the loss of "a great patriot ... a dear friend." On Saturday, he stood strong while delivering a speech telling Mexicans that despite their grief, the loss should inspire more action in the war against cartels, a conflict that has seen at least 35,000 deaths since late 2006.
Blake Mora's death has been a stunning mishap too odd for some Mexicans to accept as an accident, even with Calderon and officials saying bad weather may have been the cause of the crash. 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.
While 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 and 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's election 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.
Deputy Interior Secretary Juan Marcos Gutierrez Gonzalez is assuming Blake Mora's position on a temporary basis.
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.
Transportation Secretary Dionisio Perez Jacome said Saturday that the pilot was following visual flight rules, which requires always keeping eye contact with the ground and the craft wasn't being directed by air traffic control officials. He said the pilot chose an alternate route, presumably because of dense fog in the Ajusco mountain range south of Mexico City.
Perez said weather conditions were proper when the helicopter left the military base in Mexico City on Friday morning, but 10 minutes later officials lost track of the aircraft.
The Mexican government has asked the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and French aviation crash experts to help in the investigation.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said he was not allowed to discuss the crash because the U.S. agency was not the lead investigative agency.
"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. So far the investigation shows that when the helicopter hit the ground it was structurally complete, Perez said Saturday.
Calderon 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.
Video of the wreckage suggested the helicopter plowed into the hillside and broke in half, but did not explode or burn. Perez said Saturday the craft had not exploded.
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.