Mixed signals on Mideast terrorist presence in Mexico. Top officials say no real threat, but lower officials disagree

There is no terrorist threat in Mexico, an official at the United States Embassy said late last month at the beginning of a presentation to US businessmen on security precautions. Shortly after the meeting ended, Mexican police defused a car bomb outside the mission. Mexican and US officials at the highest levels sweep aside the notion that terrorism may soon erupt here. But lower-ranking immigration officials, border guards, US immigration officials, and Mexican press reports maintain there are Middle Eastern terrorists here, including Libyans.

Since February, newspapers have reported that within the last four months, many Middle Eastern men had been deported who were carrying false passports and often large amounts of cash. In several cases, Mexican immigration officials said they believed the men were terrorists intending to slip into the US.

The embassy says it has no information about would-be terrorists in Mexico. But when US Attorney General Edwin Meese met with his Mexican counterpart, Sergio Garc'ia Ram'irez, on April 14 and 15, Mr. Meese's primary concern was the possibility of terrorists crossing the border into the US.

The international police organization Interpol would not comment on the possible presence of terrorists in Mexico. However, several newspapers here have reported since early February that Interpol had advised Mexico of the presence of terrorists.

Mexico's border with the US is very porous, as the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who cross it annually prove. It is extremely easy to enter Mexico, diplomats say.

Since the US bombed Libya April 15, the embassy has received more than a dozen bomb threats, says embassy spokesman Vince Hovanec. The issuance of US visas was temporarily suspended and even now is severely curtailed to only about 10 percent of what it was before the threats, Mr. Hovanec says. The embassy was worried that the hundreds of people lining the sidewalk outside the building each day would become a target.

The embassy's counseling of US executives on how to protect themselves is new. One banker who attended the April 26 session said at least six large US corporations had been menaced in recent weeks as well as the American British Cowdray Hospital and the main US school.

After a car bomb warning in Tijuana, the mayor, Rene Trevino Arredondo, ordered extra police surveillance in the sections of his city most patronized by the tens of thousands of US visitors that come every weekend.

Mexican police commander Oscar Resendiz said Mexican border stations have received a string of anonymous phone calls warning of bombs planted in US customs stations, but none had been discovered yet. The calls began after the US attack on Tripoli.

Top-level Mexican officials admit they are worried about the World Cup Soccer finals, which will be held here in June. They say this might be the obvious choice for terrorists looking for publicity. As one measure to prevent this, the Mexican government has asked the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to help with security. Hovanec says that the type of assistance that will be rendered hasn't been made public yet. But Western diplomats speculate that the FBI will check names of visa applicants for terrorist links and provide lists of known terrorists to the Mexicans. Mexico has also consulted firms in Los Angeles that were involved in providing protection for the 1984 summer Olympics. The city of Monterrey has contracted French experts to assist in security.

Some Mexican politicians, who declined to be identified, say that Mexicans themselves might use violence during the World Cup for political ends. A professor of political science says he wouldn't be surprised to see sabotage or violence committed by one political group -- under the guise of ``international terrorism'' -- to discredit the current government or other politicians.

Heightening concern has been a spate of bomb scares that has hit civil aviation throughout the country. Some pilots and maintenance personnel say that the fatal crash of a Mexicana Airlines jet March 31 was caused by a bomb. The Mexican government has refused to comment on whether or not a bomb caused the crash. But right after the crash Mexicana Airlines circulated an internal memo to its employees admonishing them to follow certain rules strictly. Among those cited were not allowing flights to leave without a passenger aboard for every piece of checked luggage and not allowing anyone without proper credentials to enter maintenance zones.

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