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Mexican Cabinet minister dies in helicopter crash

Fox ally was in charge of federal police

A helicopter carrying the Cabinet minister in charge of Mexico's federal police and eight others crashed in cloud-shrouded mountains outside Mexico City on yesterday, killing everyone on board, President Vicente Fox said.

The burned wreckage of the Bell helicopter was found in a mountainous, wooded area about 20 miles outside Mexico City several hours after it was reported missing.

The aircraft was carrying Public Safety Secretary Ramon Martin Huerta -- a trusted Fox ally -- Federal Preventive Police Chief Tomas Valencia, five other passengers, and a crew of two.

It had taken off from a military base in Mexico City and was headed to a ceremony at the maximum-security La Palma prison, 35 miles west of Mexico City, when it crashed in mountains surrounded by dense clouds.

''They all died in the line of duty," Fox said in a televised address, his voice cracking with emotion. ''They are heroes . . . I have lost not just a co-worker, but a close friend, Ramon."

Fox offered no explanation for the crash. But Mario Martinez, a pilot who was following in another helicopter, told local media that Huerta's craft had disappeared into a dense bank of clouds

Mexican media speculated as to whether the helicopter's disappearance was related to Mexico's powerful drug trafficking groups.

''We are probably looking at an accident," Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal told reporters before the helicopters wreckage was discovered.

The flight was on its way to a swearing-in ceremony for prison guards, the culmination of an effort to purge corrupt officials from a prison holding Mexican drug gang leaders.

The prison was cordoned off earlier this year by federal troops after investigators found evidence that reputed drug lords Osiel Cardenas and Benjamin Arellano Felix had joined forces and were operating their networks from behind bars.

In addition to Huerta, the Bell helicopter carried a pilot, co-pilot, Valencia, officials from the Public Safety Department, and one official from the country's National Human Rights Commission.

Fox created the Public Safety Department after taking office in 2000, combining federal police forces overseeing prisons, highways, and borders -- including the Federal Preventative Police, a force that includes soldiers assigned to police work like crowd and riot control.

A trusted Fox ally, Huerta was appointed to lead the agency in August 2004 after the previous secretary, Alejandro Gertz Manero, resigned to return to private life.

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