Mexico hijacker claims mission from God

José Flores, a Bolivian, threatened to blow up a plane so he could warn the president about an earthquake. The incident ended safely but could deal another blow to tourism.

Mexico City – The man behind Mexico’s first hijacking in nearly 40 years was not a drug trafficker or a political foe but a religious man on a mission who said he was inspired by a divine revelation.

José Flores, a Bolivian national who has lived in Mexico for nearly 20 years, threatened to blow up an Aeromexico flight from the beach resort of Cancun if he was not allowed to speak with Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón: he wanted to tell the president of an earthquake that he said was due to rumble.

The incident occurred without injury. The crew and 104 passengers filed off the plane unhurt and not a single shot was fired as federal police stormed the aircraft, which had landed in Mexico City, and arrested Mr. Flores and a half dozen others who, it was later determined, were innocent passengers. Flores was working alone.

“He said he is a minister and that it was a divine revelation that made him carry out this action,” Mexico’s Security Minister Genaro García Luna told reporters.

Flores told authorities that he chose Wednesday to overtake a plane because the calendar date, 9/9/09, represents the satanic number 666 written upside down. With threats that he had a bomb, which he did not, he ordered the pilot circle the skies of Mexico City seven times before landing.

Mr. García Luna said Flores is a former alcoholic and drug addict, had been convicted of armed robbery in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where he was born, and has lived in Mexico for 17 years, currently in the southern state of Oaxaca.

More turbulence for tourism

It is unclear why he chose for his plot a flight from Cancun, to where he had traveled five days earlier, according the García Luna. It could have been a random choice, but it could not have been a more damaging one for Mexico.

Cancun is a top tourist destination, especially popular among Americans. Mexico has invested heavily to draw back tourists who were scared away by swine flu, launching a $90 million campaign early this summer. At the flu’s peak, bookings in the country dropped by 95 percent. Before that, tourism officials in Cancun had launched a campaign highlighting just how safe the beaches of the resort town are – this after some colleges had urged students to skip Mexico for spring break.

A United States official said there were American, French, and Mexican passengers aboard the plane, though no specific numbers have been released. “The important thing at this moment is that all the passengers are safe,” Transportation Minister Juan Molinar Horcasitas said in an interview with the local TV station Televisa.

Officials are hoping the tourism industry will be safe, too. Alejandro Schtulmann, president of the consulting firm Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis (EMPRA) in Mexico City, says that the incident probably will not have long-term effects on Mexico’s image. “If it had been related to drug traffickers, then it would have,” he says.

President Calderón has run a high-stakes military-led campaign to root out organized crime, and drug traffickers have increasingly targeted police and public officials, becoming more brazen with their threats and attacks. The fact that the hijacking seems to the case of a lone man could assuage fears.

Hijacker stayed in seat

According to Garcia Luna, at 1 p.m. the pilot reported to control operators in Mexico City, where the plane was originally destined, that he faced a possible hijacking.

Flores apparently never left his seat nor entered the cockpit. The pilot, after landing the aircraft, came back to Flores’s seat to negotiate with him and authorities. Most passengers were released, and then police stormed the plane, made arrests, and the crew was let go. The dramatic ordeal lasted two hours.

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