MEXICO CITY — Secretary of the Interior Francisco Blake Mora was the point man in Mexico's deadly war on organized crime, seen by many as the embodiment of the government's determination to battle the narcotics trade despite a soaring death toll.
Blake Mora died at 45 on Friday with seven other officials in a helicopter crash on the way to a prosecutors' meeting.
He made his name cracking down on drug cartel violence in his home state of Baja California by forging close cooperation between military and civilian law-enforcement officials.
He tirelessly promoted the same strategy as President Felipe Calderon's No. 2, the top policy official in Mexico's all-out push against drug traffickers and corruption.
Blake Mora also led the push to clean up Mexico's notoriously corrupt state and local police forces.
"We're trying to establish a justice system that both prevents criminal impunity and responds to the needs of society and its demands for social justice," he said at a meeting of government officials this year.
The man known to friends and colleagues as "Blake" was, "above all, a great Mexican who profoundly loved his homeland until the last moment of his life," a visibly moved Calderon said in an address to the nation, pausing several times to compose himself before continuing.
"Today Mexico has lost a great patriot ... and I've lost a dear friend", the president said.
The secretary of the interior is second only to the president in authority and coordinates domestic policy, including security, human rights, migration and the president's relation with the legislature and opposition parties.
Blake Mora frequently traveled to violence-torn cities for meetings with besieged state and local security officials, promising to step up the presence of troops and federal police in violent areas, and not leave until drug gang members there were caught.
"Organized crime, in its desperation, resorts to committing atrocities that we can't and shouldn't tolerate as a government and as a society," Blake Mora said after investigators found more than 100 bodies in pits near the U.S. border.
He later announced a five-point initiative to investigate the crimes and to increase security, including the federal monitoring of buses such as those used by the migrant victims.
Blake Mora also oversaw the government's response to natural disasters like the massive oil pipeline disaster that laid waste to parts of the central city of San Martin Texmelucan last year, killing at least 28 people.
He led the creation of a new national identity card for youths under 18, with modern features including digitalized fingerprints and iris images, to prevent criminals from using false IDs.
Blake Mora came of age at a place and moment of enormous change in Mexico's politics. He worked for the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, when it won the governorship of Baja California in 1989, the first time an opposition party victory had been recognized in Mexico since 1929.
Many analysts believe President Carlos Salinas de Gortari recognized that victory in part to calm allegations that his own 1988 election as the candidate of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party had been fraudulent.
"Starting in his youth, he involved himself in the fight for change in Mexico through the National Action Party," Calderon said.
Trained as a lawyer, Blake Mora first took political office in the mid-1990s as an official in his native Tijuana. He served as a federal congressman for Calderon's PAN from 2000 to 2003 and as a local legislator in the northern state of Baja California from 2004 to 2007.
In November 2007, he was named interior secretary for Baja California, rising in July 2010 to the national position he held until his death.
Calderon lost another interior secretary, Juan Camilo Mourino, in a plane crash in Mexico City in November 2008.
Blake Mora's last posting on Twitter remembered Mourino as "a person who was working to build a better Mexico."
Enrique Mendez Juarez, PAN party head for Tijuana, was a childhood friend of Blake Mora's, playing baseball with him as teenagers in their working-class neighborhood before both became youth activists for the party.
After Blake Mora gained high office, "I never noticed the change, of talking with a bureaucrat, he always treated me like a friend," Mendez said. "I remember him as very hard-working, serious, formal, intelligent and very able."
Government officials said Calderon met with Blake Mora's widow, Gloria Cosio, and their son, 4, and daughter, 7, on Friday. He is also survived by his mother and two brothers.
"This is very unfortunate," said Sinaloa Congressman Manuel Clouthier, whose own father, a popular PAN politician, died in a still-unexplained highway accident in 1989. "There are many coincidences because now we have two interior ministers (lost) in one presidential term ... Who knows if we'll ever really know what happened."
Blake Mora's funeral was scheduled for Saturday.
Associated Press writer Mariana Martinez Estens in Tijuana contributed to this report.