By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico says it has arrested 12 people on terrorism charges in the years since the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S., but an official said none were linked to Muslim extremist groups like al-Qaida nor were any planning to strike in the United States.
Officials from both nations say there hasn't been any sign of the southern U.S. border becoming an entry point for terrorists, as had been feared after the suicide jetliner hijackings that struck New York and Washington.
The Mexican government revealed the 12 arrests to The Associated Press this week in response to a public information request seeking details of any terrorism arrests in the last seven years. The request was made in February.
Many Americans feared Islamic terrorists from al-Qaida might try to slip into the United States by linking up with the criminal gangs and drug cartels that control large swaths of Mexico and smuggle drugs and migrants across the border.
Months after the 2001 attack, President Bush pushed Mexico to increase security. "We need to use our technology to make sure that we weed out those who we don't want in our country, the terrorists, the `coyotes,' the smugglers, those that prey on innocent life," he said.
Asked whether Mexico's 12 terrorism arrests were linked to plots against the United States, an official at the Mexican Attorney General's office said none "had anything to do with that."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to be quoted by name, said those detained had links to Basque militants in Spain or were involved in radical domestic activities in Mexico.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Friday the U.S. continually works with Mexico to ensure terrorists don't turn to Mexico and so far there is no evidence that has happened.
"There's no indication that there's been a direct al-Qaida presence in Mexico," he said. "But there certainly have been individuals that present security concerns."
He wouldn't elaborate, but one of the U.S. government's recent worries has been smuggling networks moving East African migrants through Latin America and into the U.S. Two such smugglers operating in Mexico and Belize were arrested last year.
In a speech Wednesday on international terrorism threats, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the biggest threat in Mexico is likely the powerful drug trade, in which gangs target both police and civilians and often behead their enemies.
"These enterprises may currently be criminal enterprises, but we cannot rule out the possibility in the future that they may take on a more political coloration," he said.
The U.S. has dramatically increased border security, adding fencing and border agents and monitoring more closely those who cross at border stations.
Mexico also has become much more vigilant of foreigners entering both legally and illegally. Many people from Muslim countries now have trouble getting visas to visit Mexico, and officials have arrested dozens of Christian Iraqis who fled violence in their homeland and tried to sneak into Southern California through Mexico.
Thomas Sanderson, deputy director of the transnational threats project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said al-Qaida usually sends its members through Europe because, unlike Mexico, citizens of those countries can enter U.S. territory without a visa.
"We are more likely to see people come in through airplanes," he said.
He also doubts al-Qaida operatives would expose themselves to organized crime or smuggling groups in Mexico. "They'd be concerned that their cover or their effort would be exposed. It's unfamiliar territory for them," he said.
Pressed to discuss the 12 peopled arrested, the Mexican official would say only that five were Spaniards linked to the Basque separatist group ETA and that seven were Mexicans detained in domestic cases.
She said the purported ETA members were living in Mexico to help finance the group's operations in the Basque region of northern Spain and were not planning attacks.
The official said some of the seven Mexican suspects were tied to murky domestic militant groups that have planted crude bombs at banks, government offices and oil pipelines across Mexico in recent years.
None of those attacks caused human casualties but several of the pipeline attacks had a big financial impact by interrupting fuel supplies to major industries.