By MARK STEVENSON
Associated Press Writer
MEXICO CITY (AP) _ One of Mexico’s top pointmen in the war against drug trafficking died when a government jet crashed into a Mexico City street, setting fire to dozens of vehicles and dealing crusading President Felipe Calderon a serious blow.
Officials said the Tuesday crash appeared to be an accident but the loss of Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino, former anti-drug prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos and six others thinned the ranks of Mexico’s already embattled leadership.
U.S. Ambassador Antonio Garza praised the two officials and suggested them as models for the fight against organized crime.
“Their dedication and commitment to accomplishing their work, especially that which strengthened our bilateral fight against those who attack the security of our two countries, certainly will be a model for all of us in a common effort that will continue to strengthen,” Garza said in a statement.
Mourino, 37, was one of President Felipe Calderon’s closest advisers but has been embroiled in scandal since taking office in the midst of Mexico’s violent fight against drug cartels. He was in charge of the country’s security.
“With his death, Mexico has lost a great Mexican, intelligent, loyal and committed to his ideals and his country,” Calderon told a news conference. “I ask all Mexicans that they don’t allow any event, no matter how difficult or painful, to weaken them in the pursuit of a better Mexico.”
Calderon has sent tens of thousands of federal police and army troops throughout Mexico to fight drug cartels that are fighting increasingly bloody turf battles and killing police officials.
Presidential spokesman Max Cortazar said Mourino and a group of advisers had attended the launching of a program to welcome returning migrants in the city of San Luis Potosi on Tuesday, and were headed back to Mexico City’s international airport when the plane went down.
Officials said no distress call had been received and the crash appeared to be an accident, but Calderon said his administration “will carry out all the necessary investigations to find out the causes of this tragedy.”
U.S. experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will arrive on Wednesday to assist in the investigation, officials said.
Mexico’s fleet of government aircraft have suffered accidents in the past and the country has long said it needs new helicopters and planes to fight drug cartels. Mexico is slated to receive more helicopters and planes as part of a $400 million U.S. aid package known as the Merida Initiative approved in June, but which has not been yet released.
In 2005, a helicopter crash blamed on poor weather conditions killed Mexico’s top police official, public safety secretary Ramon Martin Huerta, the head of federal police and seven other people.
The Learjet carrying Mourino crashed on a street in the posh Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, an area filled with tall office buildings. Officials evacuated about 1,800 people from area offices.
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said all those aboard the plane were killed and that more people may have died on the ground. “It’s likely that we will find other bodies in the vehicles,” Ebrard told the Televisa news network.
Hundreds of police, firefighters and soldiers swarmed the scene, which was littered with the burned-out hulks of vehicles and pieces of what appeared to be bodies.
Eight bodies were recovered and at least 40 people were injured, seven of them seriously. The jet seats eight and Calderon listed eight people — including assistants and spokespeople for Mourino — but it was unclear whether all the bodies recovered were from the plane. The bodies were too badly burned to be immediately identified.
Santiago Vasconcelos, who was previously in charge of pursuing extraditions against drug traffickers, had been the target of at least one planned assassination attempt in the past.
The plane’s wreckage came to rest just yards from tall office buildings and Ebrard said many more people would almost certainly have died had the plane hit one of the towers.
Civil aviation officials were investigating the cause of the crash.
Mourino was one of the most controversial officials when he joined Calderon’s Cabinet in January because of his family’s involvement with private contracts to Mexico’s state-owned oil company, precisely at a time when Calderon sought to open up the legal framework for more such contracts.
The Mourino family’s dealing in contracts for the transport of fuel angered many here, who view the state oil company as a point of national pride and oppose any openings to private involvement in the industry.
Born in Spain and educated at the University of Tampa in Florida, some also criticized the fact that he was foreign-born, arguing he shouldn’t be able to hold one of the top Cabinet security posts.
He became a Mexican citizen about two decades ago, served as a federal legislator and went on to become Calderon’s closest adviser as head of the Office of the Presidency. He was one of the youngest men to have held the politically sensitive post of interior secretary.
Spanish firms have recently made major inroads in Mexico’s telecommunications and banking sector, drawing criticism from some Mexicans who resent the influence of the country’s former colonial master.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.