Monterrey, Mexico Governments throughout Mexico and Central America are on alert as evidence grows that al-Qaida members are traveling in the region and looking for recruits to carry out attacks in Latin America, the potential last frontier for international terrorism.
The territory could be a perfect staging ground for Osama bin Laden's militants, with homegrown rebel groups, drug and people smugglers, and corrupt governments. U.S. officials have long feared al-Qaida could launch an attack from south of the border, and they have been paying closer attention as the number of terror-related incidents has increased since last year.
The strongest possible al-Qaida link is Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a 29-year-old Saudi pilot suspected of being a terrorist cell leader. The FBI issued a border-wide alert earlier this month for Shukrijumah, saying he may try to cross into Arizona or Texas.
In June, Honduran officials said Shukrijumah was spotted earlier this year at an Internet cafe in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Panamanian officials say the pilot and alleged bombmaker passed through their country before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in May singled out Shukrijumah as one of seven especially dangerous al-Qaida-linked terror figures wanted by the government, which fears a new al-Qaida attack. A $5 million reward is posted for information leading to his capture.
Mexican and U.S. border officials have been on extra alert, checking foreign passports and arresting any illegal migrants. In a sign of a growing Mexican crackdown, eight people from Armenia, Iran and Iraq were arrested Thursday in Mexicali on charges they may have entered Mexico with false documents, although they did not appear to have any terrorist ties.
Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's top anti-crime prosecutor, said Mexican officials have no evidence that Shukrijumah -- or any other al-Qaida operatives -- are in Mexico. But Mexican authorities are investigating and keeping a close eye on the airports and borders.
"The alert has been sounded," Vasconcelos told The Associated Press last month.
In Central America, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said officials have uncovered evidence that terrorists, likely from al-Qaida, may be trying to recruit Hondurans to carry out attacks in Central America. He did not offer details.
El Salvador authorities last week reinforced security at the country's international airport and along the borders after purported al-Qaida threats appeared on the Internet against their country for supporting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. President Tony Saca, undeterred, is sending the country's third peacekeeping unit -- 380 troops -- to Iraq.
Panama Canal worries
Terrorists have struck in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the United States. Latin America could be next, analysts say, especially as it becomes harder to operate elsewhere.
"If there is a crackdown, they are going to pick up shop and move," said Matt Levitt, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
Officials worry the Panama Canal could be a likely target. In 2003, boats making more than 13,000 trips through the waterway carried about 188 million tons of cargo.
Earlier this month, the United States and seven Latin American countries -- including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Peru and Panama -- carried out a weeklong anti-terror exercise aimed at protecting the canal.
In South America, U.S. officials have long suspected Paraguay's border with Brazil and Argentina as an area for Islamic terrorist fund-raising. Much of the focus has fallen on the Muslim community that sprouted during the 1970s, and authorities believe as much as $100 million a year flows out of the region, with large portions diverted to Islamic militants linked to Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The more immediate concern is Mexico, which shares a porous, 2,000-mile border with the United States and is the home to widespread organized crime.
In December, Mexican officials canceled two Aeromexico flights from Mexico City to Los Angeles, and a third was forced to turn around after takeoff because of terrorism concerns.
|A look at terrorism-related events in Latin America since late last year:August¢ In Honduras, Security Minister Oscar Alvarez says evidence shows terrorists, likely from al-Qaida, may be trying to recruit Hondurans to carry out attacks in Central America.¢ In El Salvador, authorities reinforce security at the international airport and along the borders after purported al-Qaida threats appear on the Internet against the country for its support of the U.S.-led mission in Iraq.¢ In Panama, the United States and seven Latin American countries -- including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Peru and Panama -- carry out a weeklong anti-terror exercise aimed at protecting the Panama Canal.¢ Along the U.S.-Mexican border, the FBI issues an alert for Adnan Gulshair El Shukrijumah, 29, an alleged al-Qaida cell leader and bombmaker, saying the Saudi pilot may try to cross into Arizona or Texas. Mexican authorities said they had no evidence he had entered Mexico.¢ In Mexicali, near the border with California, eight people from Armenia, Iran and Iraq are arrested Thursday on charges they may have entered Mexico with false documents. Although they did not appear to have ties to terrorists, they are part of Mexico's growing crackdown on non-Mexican migrants.July¢ In McAllen, Texas, 48-year-old Farida Goolam Mahamed Ahmed of South Africa is arrested after wading across the Rio Grande into Texas. Officials detain her as she tries to board a flight, saying she carried a passport with pages missing. She pleads innocent to violating U.S. immigration law, and authorities are investigating whether she has ties to terrorists. During a court hearing Aug. 20, testimony indicates Ahmed traveled from Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 8, via Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to London, then to Mexico City on or about July 14. The countries she traveled through do not require South Africans to have visas.June¢ Honduran officials say Shukrijumah was spotted earlier this year at an Internet cafe in the capital, Tegucigalpa.May¢ In Washington, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft warns that al-Qaida is determined to launch a U.S. attack in the next few months, and he asks state and local law enforcement and the public for help tracking down seven people believed to be connected to al-Qaida. One of the seven is Shukrijumah, who once lived in Florida. "All present a clear and present danger to America. All should be considered armed and dangerous," Ashcroft said.December 2003¢ In Mexico, authorities cancel two Los Angeles-bound flights from Mexico City and force a third to turn around after takeoff because the United States, Canada and Interpol told Mexico they suspected terrorists might be using Mexican soil to plan an attack.|