MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Felipe Calderon reached deep into his conservative political party Monday to name a new interior minister, replacing the senior official killed last week in a still-unexplained plane crash.
Fernando Gomez Mont, a prominent criminal lawyer and son of one of the founders of the National Action Party, or PAN, will assume the second-most important government post at an especially critical time in Mexican history. A raging drug war has claimed thousands of lives, and political forces are badly divided over economic reform and a host of pressing issues.
The appointment of Gomez Mont, who has served in a number of party and legislative posts and litigated numerous high-profile cases, won praise from PAN loyalists. However, it was criticized by analysts who questioned whether he was qualified for the sensitive job, which includes managing law enforcement and elections.
In swearing in Gomez Mont, Calderon called on him to work to strengthen political parties and electoral institutions "and avoid any type of interference by organized crime" in elections. Officials have warned of drug traffickers bribing and intimidating candidates ahead of next year's state races.
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Gomez Mont said he was extending an "open hand" to the left and to all political parties, and was committed to "getting rid of the acts of violence occurring in the nation."
Asked about controversial clients he has defended as a lawyer, he said he always acted as a professional "without hidden maneuvers."
As a litigant, Gomez Mont won an acquittal for Rogelio Montemayor, former president of the Mexican oil company Pemex, who was accused of siphoning millions of dollars to a presidential candidate. He has also defended bankers and politicians in a variety of scandals.
Gomez Mont said Monday that he was taking a leave from his law firm, effective immediately.
Political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo criticized Calderon's choice, saying an important and complex post was sacrificed to political favoritism.
"This is another reflection that Calderon does not know how to manage the interior portfolio and its tasks -- relations with parties, elections, the anti-drug fight -- and all that this implies in terms of the governability of the country," said Crespo, an analyst with the Center for Economic Research and Teaching.
Ricardo Aleman, columnist for the newspaper El Universal, said Calderon "took refuge" in the historic annals of the party by naming the son of a founder, and broke outside his tight inner circle of technocrats, allies and personal friends. The appointment was a throwback to the more traditional and doctrinaire factions of the party, he added.
Calderon won election narrowly two years ago and has struggled to build alliances while fending off repeated challenges from the left.
The Interior Ministry position, roughly equivalent to an extra-powerful vice president, "requires an experienced person with a willingness to dialogue and who knows how to build bridges with opposition parties, and Fernando Gomez Mont has all of the qualities," Gustavo Madero, speaker of the Senate and a member of the ruling party, told Mexican television.
Gomez Mont is replacing Juan Camilo Mourino, a close friend of Calderon's who was among 14 people who died Nov. 4 when a government-owned Learjet crashed into an affluent Mexico City neighborhood. Eight others on board were killed, including Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a key advisor on the drug war, as well as five people on the ground.