The death of one of the top officials in Mexico's drug war presents a riddle, as details emerge of the eerie series of events that led to his helicopter flying straight into the mountainside, killing everyone on board.
The weather trap closed quickly. The Super Puma helicopter carrying eight persons, including “the second most powerful man in Mexico,” Internal Security Minister Francisco Blake Mora, took off from Mexico City in what appeared to be acceptable flying conditions. There were ominous low clouds, but not low enough to form confusing ground fog -- at least not at the take-off site.
However, Mexico City lies cupped in a mountainous bowl. The helicopter’s planned route, to Cuernavaca just south, had to climb past a big triple peak called the Three Marias, up in the clouds, where low visibility presented nightmare obstacles.
The pilot, Lt. Col. Felipe Bacio, was a veteran aviator in what appeared to be a well-functioning craft. He seemed to decide on an end run. Only minutes after take-off, reportedly near the prominent landmark of Azteca Stadium in southern Mexico City, Bacio turned away from his planned course. Aviation officials said later that he appeared to opt for a backdoor route to Cuernavaca, trying to stay under the cloud level by sticking to lower ground.
One solution to the Tres Marias problem, with its fog on the heights, would be to navigate along a nearby series of basins. Just east of the planned route, old Aztec lakebeds pointed south toward the Valley of Cuautla. It was a logical course -- if had it been followed.
Unfortunately, just after the helicopter veered southeast, away from its planned route and toward the basin area, something happened. Accumulating evidence seems to show that it was nothing as spectacular as a bomb -- or a fire, or, seemingly, any sort of mechanical malfunction. The fateful event seems to have involved an indefinable chain of decisions.
A radar image of the craft was recorded (though such helicopter flights are not guided by control-tower instructions). The Super Puma can be seen continuing straight and level at a routine speed of about 130 miles per hour, with no known distress chatter on the radio. The straightness of the new course was precisely the problem.
Almost immediately after deviating to the southeast, the copter should have veered once again, this time to the south, in order to begin following the basin area. But no second turn came. Eerily, the southeasterly course continued unbroken. In the bowl of mountains enclosing Mexico City, such a straight and level course inevitably meant reckoning with the bowl’s far wall, to the east. Once the basin country had been missed (perhaps the clouds had closed and the craft was already flying blind, or the basin corridor itself was fogged in), the ground elevation began rising under the eight seatbelted occupants as the east wall drew nearer.
Why did the copter continue this course, at this altitude, when it was certain to intersect with the ground? This is the riddle (barring any possible revelations that could emerge in the future). The riddle suggests severe disorientation.
Helicopter UTP-06 (one of six VIP transport helicopters serving Los Pinos, the Mexican White House) was moving toward mountains so high that in the background was Popocatepetl, the eternally snow-crowned volcano more than three times higher than mile-high Denver. UTP-06 would never get that far.
At a thickly-fogged lower hump called Ayaqueme, and an elevation of about 2,600 meters (8,530 feet), the ground’s upslope converged with the copter’s straight and level path. Radar seemed to capture only a slight slowing before impact, at the last moment.
In 2009 a similar Super Puma helicopter, also flown by a veteran pilot, was ferrying workers to a British Petroleum oil rig in Europe’s North Sea -- when a fog trap began to close. Flying conditions had seemed acceptable at first -- and almost to the end -- as the pilot spotted the rig ahead in open ocean. But the fog was capricious, seeming to envelope the copter on its approach. Witness accounts grew confused. One had the pilot emerging from a blind patch to find the rig much closer than he had thought. Another had a passenger never guessing anything was wrong at all, expecting a rig crewman to open the hatch as the copter finished easing down, only to find seawater entering instead, for the craft had ditched in the waves. That crash was not against a mountainside, and the occupants survived.
There is reason for special scrutiny of the last flight of UTP-06, on November 11, 2011, for, unsettlingly, it came three years almost to the day after another Mexican Internal Security Minister was killed in a Mexico City plane crash, also under puzzling circumstances. The other crash, on November 4, 2008, came around the time of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and its three-year anniversary in 2011 was memorialized personally by Internal Security Minister Blake Mora. When Blake himself met a mirror-image tragedy seven days later, various coincidences stirred suspicions.
Francisco Blake Mora was the most visible point man on his government’s drug war, which is now said to have cost 50,000 lives since its beginning in late 2006, though official counts have stopped being issued. In a dark time for Mexico, with many blind turns, unexplained riddles are sometimes the only clues that deeper forces are at work. Sometimes -- but not always. At a point between Azteca Stadium and Ayaqueme Mountain, just past 8:50 a.m. on November 11, 2011, there was only the riddle. A course toward disaster was left to play out its hand.
The eight persons on UTP-06, besides Minister Blake Mora, were pilot Bacio; his co-pilot, Lt. Roman Escobar; Mexican government Sub-Secretary for Judicial Affairs and Human Rights Felipe Zamora; departmental public relations director Jose Alfredo García; administrative secretary Diana Miriam Hayton; and departmental chief of security Rene de Leon. Response teams on the moutainside confirmed the bleak outcome, finding no survivors.
See Gary Moore's blog.