By JULIE WATSON
Associated Press Writer
MEXICO CITY (AP) _ A fiery plane crash into rush-hour traffic claimed the life of the Mexico’s most powerful official after the president, a heavy blow to the government’s escalating battle against drug cartels.
Officials say all indications are that the crash was an accident, but they vowed to investigate thoroughly to rule out the possibility of an attack and brought in U.S. and British investigators to help.
The plane carried Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino, the equivalent of Mexico’s vice president and head of domestic security, as well as former anti-drug prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos.
The government Learjet 45 was approaching the Mexico City airport when it suddenly slammed into rush-hour traffic in the posh Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, igniting a fireball that lit up the evening sky and killed at least 13 people.
“There was an explosion and we started to run. That was when we saw everything on fire behind us,” said Guadalupe Sanabria, who was selling hot dogs from a street stand 20 yards (meters) from where the jet crashed.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called Mourino “a courageous and strong partner in the fight against dangerous criminal groups.”
“He believed in the rule of law and worked very hard to increase coordination among security officials and law enforcement on both sides of the border,” Chertoff said in a statement Wednesday.
Many Mexicans immediately speculated that the crash was another hit by drug cartels that have killed several top officials in recent months.
Mourino, Vasconcelos and a group of advisers were flying back to Mexico City from the city of San Luis Potosi after attending the inauguration of a program to welcome migrants returning from the U.S.
Mexico City prosecutor Miguel Angel Mancera told the Televisa network that nine of the victims were on the plane and four were on the ground. He said officials were searching for more possible remains.
Dozens of cars caught fire and at least 40 people were injured, while officials evacuated about 1,200 people from the scene near the busy Reforma Avenue.
Hundreds of police, firefighters and soldiers searched charred hulks of vehicles for the remains of bodies, many of which were burned beyond recognition.
Mourino, 37, was Calderon’s closest aide, while Vasconcelos was previously in charge of prosecuting and extraditing drug traffickers and had been the target of at least one planned assassination attempt in the past.
The Sinaloa cartel is suspected of having killed acting Mexican federal police chief Edgar Millan in May, likely for his crackdown on trafficking at the airport. Just months after taking office nearly two years ago, Calderon acknowledged receiving threats.
“It makes you suspicious, the way things are going with drug trafficking in this country,” said Arturo Hernandez, a 39-year-old bank employee sitting at a cafe in Mexico City. “It seems like an attack.”
Transportation Secretary Luis Tellez, however, told a news conference that “there are no indications that would support any hypothesis other than that this was an accident, but we will investigate until all possibilities have been exhausted.”
Tellez said authorities have not found any indication that the 10-year-old craft exploded or caught fire while in flight. He said a mechanical failure may have caused the crash.
U.S. experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, arrived Wednesday, and three experts from Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority will also help investigate, Tellez said.
Keith Holloway, the spokesman for the NTSB, also said there was no indication that foul play was involved.
“If it was known as this point that there was some criminal activity, then the NTSB would not be assisting,” he said.
The death prompted Mexico’s Congress to postpone debate on a new budget until next week, the government news agency Notimex reported.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.