The helicopter carrying the minister, Ramon Martin Huerta, and his entourage crashed into a range of mountains near Mexico City in foggy weather. It took rescue workers six hours to locate the crash site and begin the task of recovering the human remains amid the wreckage.
In a country where drug chiefs are held in deep awe for their ability to control people and events, even from behind bars, there was widespread suspicion that the crash had somehow been engineered by Mr Huerta's enemies. But the crash was described by President Vicente Fox as a "terrible accident" and no evidence was immediately forthcoming to suggest foul play. "I profoundly regret the terrible accident," the President said in a televised address. "I have lost an associate, but above all, a dear friend."
La Palma, the maximum-security prison where the convoy of officials was heading, is home to some of the country's most notorious traffickers including Osiel Cardenas, head of the Gulf cartel which has been engaged in a vicious turf war with his rival from Sinaloa, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. More than 1,000 people have perished in the tumult of execution-style killings that have racked the country, particularly along the border with the US, over the past year.
Among the more eye-catching incidents have been the killing of Michoacan province's head of public security last week, and the assassination in June of a police chief in Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, hours after he was sworn in.
The Fox administration, both before and after the appointment of Mr Huerta, has put at least 18 high-profile criminals behind bars - acting in part under pressure from the United States, which has placed the onus of cleaning up the cartels squarely on Mexican shoulders, while doing little or nothing to improve border security or arrest key marijuana and cocaine suppliers on the US side of the border.
Some critics, both domestically and in the United States, have argued that Mr Huerta's war has been counter-productive since it has merely created power vacuums that encourage further violence.
Cardenas, who became famous for recruiting government paramilitary forces and refashioning them into his own private army called the Zetas, was arrested in 2003. Since then, his operation has been under ferocious assault from the Men in Black gang controlled by Guzman.
Guzman made a dramatic prison escape in a laundry basket four years ago, and has been on the loose ever since.
President Fox vowed that the loss of his colleagues would not deter him in pursuing his aggressive anti-cartel policies. "Today, more than ever, I repeat the commitment of my government and of the nation to build a safe Mexico, of justice, peace and freedom," he said.Reuse content