Mexico Plane Crash Kills Minister, Hampering Drug War

Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) — Mexican Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino was killed yesterday when a jet carrying him and seven others crashed in the capital, threatening to derail President Felipe Calderon’s fight against drug trafficking.

At least 40 people were injured on the ground and all eight people on the plane were killed, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said. Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the former chief prosecutor for drug crimes in the attorney general’s office, was among the passengers who died.

Mourino, 37, had been tapped by Calderon to oversee the struggle against drug cartels and his death is a blow to efforts to contain spiraling violence. More than 4,000 people have died this year as the military battles the cartels and traffickers fight for cocaine and marijuana routes into the U.S.

“With his death Mexico loses a great Mexican, intelligent, loyal, committed to his ideals and to the country,” Calderon said last night during an impromptu speech at the city’s main airport.

Calderon, 46, promoted Mourino to interior minister, the country’s No. 2 political position, in January. Mourino warned Sept. 23 that cartels were using their wealth to penetrate police forces and may be contributing funds to candidates’ campaigns for next year’s midterm elections.

Mexico’s interior minister traditionally takes on presidential duties when the president leaves the country, said Francisco Gonzalez, a professor of Latin American Studies at John Hopkins University in Washington.

City Crash

The plane crash occurred during rush hour in Mexico City, and traffic in much of the capital slowed to a crawl. More than 1,900 people were evacuated from the site, which includes a mix of commercial and residential buildings, Ebrard said. Miguel Monterrubio, Mourino’s chief of communications and formerly head of international press for Calderon, also died.

Body parts were strewn across the sidewalk at the site of the crash, in the Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood. Onlookers screamed in panic and people covered in blood staggered on the street. Dozens of cars and a newsstand were engulfed in flames. Police said as many as 15 people were killed in the crash in total, including drivers in the burning cars, La Reforma reported.

“The lights went off and everyone thought it was an earthquake,” said Rafael Gutierrez Serrano, 28, who was inside a building on the street where the crash occurred. “It was just like a bomb. It seemed like the fire was going to reach us.”

The plane, operated by the government, was a Learjet that had taken off from San Luis Potosi state and was headed to Mexico City’s airport.

Plane Emergency

The pilot reported an emergency after taking off, La Jornada said. The control tower lost communication with the plane shortly after, the newspaper reported.

“This is a blow to Calderon,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington research group.

Mexico’s peso plunged as much as 3.4 percent after reports of Mourino’s death. The peso was down 1.7 percent to 12.6989 per U.S. dollar at 7:30 a.m. New York time.

Calderon’s fight against traffickers has brought about more than 100 extraditions to the U.S. since he took office, more than any other Mexican president. Those arrested include Oziel Cardenas, former head of the Gulf Cartel, which controls drug trafficking in the Mexican Caribbean and northeastern Mexico. Recently, police have arrested high-level drug traffickers in the Sinaloa cartel, the largest and most violent of the gangs.

Oil Contracts

Mourino previously served as a deputy energy minister under President Vicente Fox and as a congressman. He ran Calderon’s campaign for president, and led negotiations with opposition party members on Calderon’s bill to open the state oil industry to private and foreign investment.

Mourino reduced his public role as Calderon’s agent after accusations surfaced this year that he directed oil transportation contracts to his father’s company while working in the energy ministry. Mourino was cleared by a congressional investigation of any wrongdoing.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza expressed sympathy for the families of the victims of the plane crash at an event to celebrate the U.S. presidential election last night.

Mourino, who was born in Spain, was married to Mary Geli, and had two sons, Ivan and Juan Camilo, and one daughter, Maria, according to a transcript of Calderon’s speech.

Calderon was traveling in Jalisco state when the crash occurred. He boarded a plane back to Mexico City and gave a press conference after his plane landed.