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Mexico plane hijacking ends peacefully

All 104 passengers on the Aeromexico flight from Cancun are freed and at least half a dozen men thought to be Latin American are led away from the plane after it parks at a Mexico City airport.

September 10, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — An evangelical preacher acting on what he said was a divine revelation inspired by Wednesday's date -- the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninth year of the century -- attempted to hijack a Mexican airliner from Cancun. But he was quickly arrested after landing here, and all aboard the jet were freed unharmed.

Armed with a Bible and a fake bomb made of juice cans, the would-be hijacker threatened to blow up Aeromexico Flight 576 bound for Mexico City with 104 passengers and a crew of eight unless he could speak to Mexican President Felipe Calderon. He wanted to warn Calderon of an earthquake that he said would devastate Mexico, national public security chief Genaro Garcia Luna said.

The man, identified as Jose Marc Flores Pereira of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, who has lived in Mexico for 17 years, acted alone, contrary to earlier reports, and is now under arrest, Garcia Luna said in a Wednesday evening news conference.

"He said he was a preacher, and he said he was a drug addict and alcoholic," Garcia Luna said. "He will be checked to determine his state of mind."

No one was hurt in what turned out to be a brief bizarre, internationally televised incident that mobilized hundreds of Mexican security personnel and transfixed the news media and public but ended in a bloodless rescue.

After the national security chief spoke to reporters at an airport hangar, the handcuffed suspect was paraded before TV cameras. He smiled, chewed gum and darted his eyes back and forth nervously. Flores Pereira, 44, attempted to shout something out to the reporters, but his heavily armed guards hustled him away.

A few minutes later, a government microphone put before him, Flores Pereira said, somewhat breathlessly rambling, that "we are living the end of the end" and that he needed to announce to the world that "Christ is coming." He said his "bomb" was two cans filled with dirt and attached to a small light.

"What I wanted was that my words be heard," he said.

Calderon, who delayed a planned flight because of the airport alarm, later described the attempted hijacking as an important "test for us all" and he congratulated the security forces for their swift action. "Scary, no?" he said.

About an hour into the early-afternoon flight from the popular Caribbean beach resort, the would-be hijacker made his demands known to members of the crew, who radioed the threat to air traffic controllers in Mexico City. He also said he wanted the plane to circle the capital's airport seven times before landing.

Flores Pereira did not cause a ruckus onboard, and many passengers, who included foreign nationals, said they had not realized that anything was amiss.

The Boeing 737 landed at Mexico City's international airport and taxied to a remote, secure zone. Hundreds of masked federal police officers backed by military forces quickly surrounded it, while authorities began negotiating with the hijacker, the pilot serving as intermediary.

After about 45 minutes, Flores Pereira agreed to let women and children disembark, and he too descended. Security forces immediately took him into custody; at that point, he claimed to have three accomplices still onboard.

That led authorities to inspect all the male passengers, and take away seven in handcuffs. The seven, including a local congressman with a leftist political party, were eventually cleared and released.

Other passengers were ordered to sit briefly on the tarmac and were then taken to hangars for debriefing. Explosives experts detonated Flores Pereira's luggage.

Passenger Rodrigo Padilla said he noticed one man onboard wearing a white shirt -- apparently Flores Pereira -- who repeatedly rose from his seat and checked his bags.

Other than that, he said, everything seemed normal. "There were no weapons, no shots," he said. "No one threatened us."

Passenger Adriana Romero also noticed the man who kept rising. "He didn't seem a bad guy," she said. "He had a nice shirt and a good watch."

Garcia Luna said Flores Pereira, once in custody, said he'd had a divine revelation that the world was in trouble after he realized it was Sept. 9, 2009, or 9-9-9, which, upside down, is 6-6-6, a symbol of the devil.

"So far, we have no indication that he is involved with any terrorist activity," Garcia Luna said. "The threat was he had an explosive and was going to blow up the plane . . . and that he was going to crash the plane if he wasn't given control of it."

Calling himself Josmar Flores, the preacher can be seen on YouTube singing at an evangelical Christian festival.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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