The death of one of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's most trusted drug war lieutenants, Jose Francisco Blake Mora, in a helicopter crash has triggered a round of feverish speculation about the causes of the crash.
Blake Mora had served as Calderon's interior minister since 2010 -- one of the most important positions in the Mexican government. While his job largely involved dealing with other realms of Mexican officialdom, from the Congress to state and local governments, Blake also had a significant role in implementing the government’s security policy.
Blake and the six other public servants and crew-members who also perished were on their way from Mexico City to Cuernavaca when the helicopter went down outside the capital. Officials invited international experts to participate in the investigation, and later reported that initial inquiries indicate that the crash was an accident. They also said that the pilots never lost control of the aircraft, suggesting that they flew into a hillside as a result of a impromptu change of the flight plan, which, in turn, was due to cloudy conditions.
Such declarations do little to calm the suspicions of foul play that erupted immediately after the news hit the airwaves. Beyond the Calderon administration’s aggressive combat of organized crime, a couple of other factors contribute to the speculation that the crash was not a simple accident.
One is the pattern of government officials dying in plane or helicopters. Blake Mora’s death comes almost exactly three years after the death of Juan Camilo Mouriño, also interior secretary under Calderon, in a Mexico City plane crash. (Adding to the eerie connection, Blake Mora’s final Tweet referred to Mouriño.) In addition to Mouriño, former drug czar Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, one of the most prominent drug warriors in Mexico, also died in the crash. According to reports, Genaro Garcia Luna, the current secretary of public security and the foremost emblem of Calderon’s security policy, was also supposed to be aboard the flight, saved only by a last-minute schedule change.
Three years before Mouriño's death, Ramon Martin Huerta, public security secretary under Vicente Fox, was killed in a helicopter crash in the Mexico City area. Like the Mouriño crash, Martin Huerta’s was ruled to be an accident. And as Excelsior reported, there have now been close to a dozen other crashes involving security personnel in the past four years, in which at least 23 people have died.
According to the most prominent conspiracy theory, one criminal group or another sought to send a message to Calderon by targeting one of his closes collaborators. Furthering this idea is the fact that Calderon was evidently supposed to board Blake Mora’s helicopter later that day. Another spooky element came from the date of the crash: November 11, 2011, or 11/11/11. And, as the Huffington Post reported, a day before the crash, one Mexican Twitter user posted a message saying, "Tomorrow on 11/11/11, you'll have a Secretary falling from the sky ... avoid reform."
While the conspiracy theories are favored by crackpots, analysts less inclined to wild theories are also scratching their heads at the bizarre series of deadly accidents. "Statistically, it is starting to become very difficult to blame these accidents on human error," Armand Peschard-Sverdrup of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Reuters. "The Mexican government has to review its security protocols for all aircraft and vehicles ... and you have to be open to the idea that this was not a random accident."
There are, however, a number of reasons to doubt the conspiracies. One is that, while drug gangs have attacked aircraft in the past, they have never shown an interest in using this tactic to assassinate specific officials. Another is that while the frequency of plane crashes involving Mexican public servants is striking, it’s also true that federal officials in a large country like Mexico typically spend an inordinate amount of time airborne, which in turn means that an inordinate number of them will suffer accidents. Public figures everywhere suffer such tragedies from time to time, from Paul Wellstone and Ron Brown in the U.S. to Lech Kaczynski in Poland.
Another fact that cuts against the conspiracies is that criminal groups have never once been publicly implicated in any of the crashes. The Mexican government typically doesn’t hesitate to pin the blame on organized criminal groups, so it’s not clear why they would be so reticent to blame them in cases of downed aircraft.
An alternative theory is much simpler and more logical, though probably more damning. That is, the extraordinary number of fatal crashes is not caused by criminal groups sending messages to the president, but rather by a deficient aviation safety system. Defects in the model that killed Mouriño and Santiago Vasconcelos, a Learjet 45, had provoked a warning from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in 2003, yet the Mexican government purchased a handful of them for use by senior officials a year later.
The helicopter carrying Blake Mora had recently received maintenance, according to reports, but it was also almost 30 years old, having been purchased originally during the administration of Miguel de la Madrid.
With so many fatal crashes in recent years, it’s difficult to rule out criminal sabotage in every case, but the lack of attention to aviation safety crops up again and again. Such carelessness in protecting the men and women responsible for running the Mexican state, while not as viscerally scary as the idea of hyper-aggressive, all-powerful capos, would ultimately be more worrying.