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Mexico Probes Drug-War Minister's Chopper Death

Reuters, Sept. 22, 2005

by Noel Randewich

MEXICO CITY, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Mexico is investigating a helicopter crash that killed a leading figure in its war against violent drug gangs, but early evidence points to an accident caused by fog, the government said on Thursday.

Public Security Minister Ramon Martin Huerta and eight others died on Wednesday when the helicopter carrying them slammed into a fog-shrouded mountain near the capital.

Martin Huerta was a close ally and friend of President Vicente Fox, and a key operative in a war on drugs that has seen a surge of violence along the U.S.-Mexico border this year.

As rescue teams removed bodies from the remote crash site on Thursday, the government said it would leave no stone unturned in the investigation. But it played down fears that drug bosses may have shot down the helicopter or otherwise sabotaged it.

"Investigations have barely begun, reports are being made, but everything points to a terrible accident," Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca told reporters.

Hundreds of soldiers and rescue workers searched in heavy fog for six hours before they located the destroyed aircraft on Wednesday evening. All contact was lost shortly into the flight from the capital to a high-security prison.

The Bell 412 helicopter apparently crashed at full speed into a rocky area and burst into flames after the pilot apparently lost visibility, officials said.

Jose Antonio Bernal, an inspector from a state-run human rights watchdog, was also killed in the crash. He had received at least three death threats from notorious drug capo Osiel Cardenas, who was captured in 2003 but continues to run his cartel and order executions from behind bars, the Mexican government has said.

"No line of investigation should be closed, although we should not jump to a conclusion (of foul play) I frankly don't see," said Alejandro Gertz, Fox's former public security minister.

Also among the dead was Tomas Valencia, the head of the Federal Preventive Police, one of Mexico's federal police forces.

More than 1,000 people have been killed this year as drug gangs fight over lucrative smuggling routes to the United States.

Fox challenged the drug lords earlier this month to take on the security forces, including the army and federal police.

"We are going to win this battle. We'll see who is tougher, we'll see who is more stubborn," Fox said in an interview with Reuters.

Martin Huerta's chopper was flying to the La Palma maximum-security penitentiary that holds several of Mexico's most feared drug criminals.

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Updated: Thursday, September 22, 2005   ~   Accessed: 7030 times
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