MEXICO CITY — President Felipe Calderon named one of Mexico's top criminal lawyers as his new interior minister on Monday, putting him in charge of implementing justice and security reforms to help combat drug gangs.
Fernando Gomez Mont is in his mid-forties and was a federal lawmaker when the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, was in opposition. He replaces Calderon's former right-hand man Juan Camilo Mourino, who died in a plane crash last week.
Gomez Mont was a surprise choice, not being from Calderon's inner circle. However, both men graduated from the same prestigious Mexico City law school and Calderon praised his experience in criminal and electoral law.
"His extensive knowledge of criminal law will be very useful in this stage of implementing the constitutional reforms in security and justice," Calderon said.
Calderon's biggest challenge since taking office in December 2006 has been fighting powerful drug cartels. Violence involving the army, federal police and rival gangs has killed more than 4,000 people across Mexico this year.
"We are committed to ridding the country of these acts of violence," Gomez Mont told a news conference.
The second conservative president since 71 years of one-party rule ended in 2000, Calderon has pushed through changes in pension, tax, energy and justice laws through a divided Congress, including measures that boost police powers to pursue drug traffickers.
Mourino was instrumental in passing the reforms and his death in the crash of a government jet in Mexico City on Tuesday was a blow to Calderon as he grapples with sliding oil income and spiraling drug violence.
Effectively a vice president, Mexico's interior minister is in charge of domestic security but also works with opposition parties to drive the government's agenda in Congress.
Gomez Mont is the son of one of the PAN's founders. He worked as a PAN lawmaker on electoral law and advised on justice reforms under previous opposition governments.
As an independent lawyer he has defended high-profile clients such as ex-president Carlos Salinas, a former director of oil monopoly Pemex, and the Canal 40 television network.
"He's a magnificent lawyer. He's a man with a firm hand and after the very sad loss of my friend and colleague Juan Camilo Mourino, the arrival of Fernando Gomez Mont should fill us with hope," Labor Minister Javier Lozano said.
Calderon said he had asked Gomez Mont to work to keep drug gangs from interfering with elections, after warning last year that they were trying to intimidate and buy candidates.
Mexico is set to hold mid-term congressional elections in July 2009.
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