Mexico boasts preparedness in hijacking

While Wednesday's stand-off may have heightened safety concerns, it revealed little in the way of lax security practices.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Is Mexico safe?

Sometimes it seems like a resounding "no." Wednesday's hijacking here comes on top of a US travel advisory warning of "large firefights," drug traffickers with a penchant for beheading, and a year of headlines ranging from a grenade explosion in a public plaza to a state-wide, police station shootout.

The hijacking – from the American-friendly resort town of Cancun, no less – significantly heightened the perception of danger, but revealed little in the way of lax security – at the airport or otherwise – in Mexico. While Mexico has experienced many episodes that provoked questions about its safety, Wednesday's dramatic stand-off will not be one of them, many say.

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"This is going to be inconsequential – ultimately a non-event," says Stephen Meiners, a Latin America analyst at the global intelligence company Stratfor. "[The hijacker] didn't manage to breach the cockpit, no one seemed to be scared, he did not get any kind of weapons on board. He was never a risk to anyone on the plane."

Hijacker motivated by religion

The hijacker, a Bolivian national named José Flores, appears to have been working alone. He was neither motivated by money nor politics, but a religious zeal that he said inspired him to threaten to blow up the Aeromexico jetliner if Mexican President Felipe Calderón did not speak with him.

Mr. Flores, who has lived in Mexico for 17 years, was arrested for telling the crew that he had a bomb on board and that he would ignite it if President Calderon refused to hear what he had to say about an impending earthquake.

His bomb threat, however, turned out to be a hoax. After being detained, Flores told reporters that the fake bomb was actually a juice can with some lights attached to it. So this is not an example of careless security protocols at the Cancun airport, nor is it a case of corruption. Even though customs officials have been under fire for corruption – more than 1,000 were purged in a recent crackdown – airline security in general is considered good in Mexico, including in tourist destinations like Cancun.

"Mexican security is substantially equal to that which we have in the US," says airline expert Aaron Gellman at Northwestern University. In this case, with no real bomb, he says, "they could not detect what he didn't have."

No threat to passengers

Flores, in addition to having no weapon, apparently never threatened passengers: some of them reported that they were unaware that a hijacking had even occurred until they saw police cars surrounding the plane on the tarmac. He never entered the plane's cockpit.

His wife painted him as a devout man with good intentions. "He never wanted to hurt anyone," Elisa Melgar told CNN. "As his wife, I support him.... He's a man who was transformed by the power of God."

Had he been linked to the drug-trafficking groups that have left over 13,000 dead since President Calderon launched a military offensive against them in 2006, the pubic mood might be different. The "failed state" that the Pentagon warned Mexico risked becoming this past winter might seem closer to reality.

Government: We're prepared

If anything, the government has characterized this as a demonstration of their preparedness, one that shows they are in control. Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna said that from the moment the pilot alerted the controllers in Mexico City of a possible hijacking, all the proper procedures were followed.

All of the crew and 104 passengers were released unharmed, and police swarmed the plane in Mexico City without firing a shot. The airline company also highlighted that correct procedures were followed. "The security protocols foreseen in the airline's procedures manual were activated from the moment that the pilots reported the incident through the aircraft's communication systems, ensuring appropriate and effective coordination of efforts between the personnel on the ground and the crew on board," Aeromexico said in a statement.

This does not mean that security won't be increased, as it normally is after a nation reacts to a scare. "I'm sure there will be politically driven pressures to if nothing beef up something here and there," says Mr. Gellman.

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