Mexico's battle against drug traffickers received a colossal setback Tuesday night, when two high-level officials leading the effort to stem narcotrafficking violence were killed in a plane crash.
The Learjet carrying Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño and José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the former Deputy Attorney General, crashed in the middle of rush-hour traffic in an upscale neighborhood of Mexico City, killing all eight on board, many on the ground, and injuring dozens of others driving along the busy roadway.
Mexican transportation Secretary Luis Tellez said the crash appeared to be an accident. But the loss of Mr. Mouriño and Mr. Vasconcelos is a decisive blow to President Felipe Calderón's antinarcotics apparatus.
Mr. Calderón has sent thousands of officials across the country to weaken trafficking cartels that are becoming more ruthless and brazen by the day. Some 4,000 people have been killed this year in incidents related to drug violence.
Increasingly, the victims are high-ranking police officials, prosecutors, and soldiers.
"The federal government, under my charge, in coordination with the relevant institutions, will carry out all necessary investigations in order to check in-depth what caused this tragedy," Calderón said in a televised speech after the crash.
But even if no foul play is uncovered, the government might have trouble convincing Mexicans – whose newspapers chronicle the gruesomeness of the drug trade daily – that it was just an accident.
At the scene, Mexicans buzzed about the causes.
"There are versions going around. Some say it was an accident. I think this is sabotage," says Jesus Chávez, a tourist guide in Mexico City. "This tragedy is the zenith of violence in this country."
Most of the violence spawned by the drug trade has remained insular, but that is shifting.
In one of the most notorious recent cases, gangs were allegedly behind a grenade attack in a public plaza in September.
Mouriño, whose position as interior minister is comparable to a vice presidential post, had been floated as a contender for the 2012 presidential election.
He was the highest ranking national security official, coordinated cabinet efforts on the war against drug traffickers, and was a close ally of Calderón.
"Mexico has lost a compatriot who worked for the service of his country," Calderón said.
The other high-ranking official, Vasconcelos, had dedicated most of his life to fighting organized crime. He survived at least one potential assassination attempt this winter, when five hit men allegedly out to kill him were arrested. He headed the organized-crime division for the Mexican attorney general until August.
US Ambassador Antonio Garza said the two men were models in 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," he said in a statement.
The military was reportedly dispatched there immediately after the crash to launch investigations.