Passport case fuels terror fear
by Todd Bensman and Sean Mattson
San Antonio Express-News
March 22, 2008
Three Afghan Muslim men caught posing as Mexican nationals last month while en route to Europe were part of a human smuggling operation and carried what now are believed to be altered but genuine Mexican passports for which they paid $10,000 each, Indian investigators told the San Antonio Express-News.
An ongoing transcontinental investigation, which now involves Mexican and Indian authorities, began Feb. 11 when a suspicious airport Customs official in Kuwait noticed the three Afghans, traveling under Mexican pseudonyms, couldn't speak Spanish during a layover on their trip from New Delhi, India, to France.
The three Afghan travelers were detained and deported to India, where they remain in custody while Mexican and Indian authorities try to learn about their backgrounds, where they were going and who sold the apparently real government-issue passports. A U.S. source confirmed the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators also are looking into the matter.
At issue to some U.S. national security experts is whether another of Mexico's foreign embassies might be implicated in selling travel documents to people from countries like Afghanistan where terror organizations are active, a circumstance that potentially could bring terrorists to American borders. It wouldn't be the first time a foreign Mexican embassy was implicated in such an affair.
In 2003, a Mexican investigation into a Lebanon-Mexico human smuggling operation produced firings and indictments of Mexican Embassy personnel in Beirut for allegedly selling travel documents to Lebanese citizens. One man who bought a Mexican visa for $3,000 turned out to be a ranking Hezbollah operative smuggled over the California border in the trunk of a car. Mahmud Kourani was convicted in 2004 of supporting the terrorist group from Detroit.
Catching U.S.-bound travelers from the Middle East "was our No. 1 concern," said recently retired FBI Assistant Legal Attache James Conway, who for four years after 9-11 oversaw the bureau's counterterrorism programs in Mexico City. "That's the national security concern from our southern flank."
Travelers from Islamic countries carrying passports that are valid but altered with fake names and photographs are among the most difficult to detect, he said. In the black markets of human smuggling, real national passports with embedded security bar codes rank among the most valuable travel documents because they enable their bearers to more easily slip through airport inspections.
"If you've got a Mexican passport you've already crossed the bridge," Conway said. "And you can become part of the flood of people who cross into the U.S. If terrorists wanted to exploit the infrastructure in place, they can. It's there."
V.G. Babu, superintendent of immigration police at New Delhi's Cochin International Airport, told the San Antonio Express-News by phone that the passports were genuine government-manufactured passports and the three men admitted to buying them for $10,000 each in Bombay, which hosts a Mexican consulate office.
Babu said the three men initially tried to convince Indian authorities they were Mexicans. But the story quickly fell apart when two of the three couldn't prove they spoke Spanish, he said.
"We broke them," because of the language issue, he said, and handed the Afghan citizens over to federal Indian police for further investigation.
Investigators learned that a third Afghan who did speak some Spanish had more than casual dealings with the Mexican embassy personnel in New Delhi and was known to speak several languages, according to one Indian news report.
Babu said he could offer no further details. Mexican foreign service officials would only confirm that a multi-ministry investigation was under way.
The Mexican Embassy in New Delhi declined to comment on the case. However, a Feb. 16 newindypress.com news report cited New Delhi-based Ambassador Rogerlio Granguillhome as confirming to Indian authorities that the passports were likely real and asking that the documents be handed over so they can be traced to their origins at an embassy or consulate office.
Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for Mexico's embassy in Washington, also would not answer questions specific to the investigation. But he did say his government "has applied strong measures and invested considerable resources to continuously improve the security of its travel documents."
"Mexico is a committed partner with the U.S. in ensuring our borders are not used to threaten or undermine our common security," Alday said in an e-mail.
Whether the Afghans are connected to terrorist organizations battling with American troops in Afghanistan and how they obtained the passports remain unknown as the obscure foreign investigation unfolds.
But Afghanistan is one of 43 predominantly Islamic nations listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as "countries of special interest" because al-Qaida or other terror groups operate in them.
Many Afghans caught crossing the U.S. southern border in recent years have been determined to be economic immigrants, not terrorists, but many others are presumed to have crossed and not been caught. Between 2002 and 2006, the U.S. border patrol caught about 63 Afghans crossing the borders, according to agency capture data.
Conway, the former FBI legal attache to Mexico, said that during his tour the FBI got many "hits" running the names of captured immigrants from those countries through terror watch list databases. He declined to elaborate, citing national security rules against disclosure, and it remains unknown what was learned of those individuals.
The India case highlights concern among homeland security officials since 9-11 about a continuing stream of such immigrants from countries of interest who are able to illegally cross U.S. borders every year using Latin American travel documents often provided by paid human smugglers.
A chief concern, according to current and former FBI and ICE agents familiar with the issue, is how well Latin American countries police the supplies of travel documents emanating from their embassies and consulates in Islamic countries.
According to federal court records from prosecutions of Middle Eastern smugglers, thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese and citizens of many other Islamic countries have been able to travel illegally to Latin American countries, then over U.S. borders. They were often able to do so by using real travel documents originating from embassy offices of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.
Conway, the retired FBI agent who supervised counterterrorism programs in Mexico, said the ability to obtain real passports from any of those countries represents a high danger.
"If you've got diplomatic establishments, like in Beirut, handing out passports, there's little you can do," he said. "They come to Mexico, dress like Mexican businessmen and you think they're going to pop up on our radar screen? Absolutely not. They're going to walk on through."
In recent years, U.S. authorities have sought to make Central and South American countries more aware of the security threat presented by their foreign consulates and embassies. But some of those countries, such as Venezuela and Guatemala, have proven less than responsive when asked to tighten controls on foreign service personnel stationed abroad.
Among countries south of the U.S., Mexico has proven to be among the most cooperative, Conway and other federal agents who have worked counterterrorism programs there have said. Mexico has collaborated extensively with American agencies to interdict travelers from countries of interest, going so far as to allow American agents to interrogate captured detainees inside Mexican facilities.
As part of those efforts, the Mexican government has taken some steps to fortify confidence in its foreign embassy personnel. For instance, after an investigation in 2003 Mexico purged its Beirut embassy of personnel thought to have been supplying travel documents to a Lebanese human smuggling operation run by Salim Boughader, a Lebanese Mexican.
Then, after Boughader was convicted in U.S. courts of smuggling hundreds of Lebanese into Mexico and then over the U.S. borders, Mexico prosecuted and convicted him.
Mexico also has intensified a program of vetting its foreign consuls and actively monitoring the activities of staff elsewhere. Last year, the Express-News reported that Iraqis and other citizens of the region had offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Mexico's honorary consul to Jordan, for travel visas that would get them to Mexico and then the U.S.
Raouf N. El-Far, a Jordanian businessman who was appointed Mexico's honorary consul to Jordan in 2004, said he refused all offers. He also said he underwent an intensive intelligence background check before his appointment, part of a new program at the time.
Still, word that three Afghans caught using passports to pose as traveling Mexican nationals struck counter-terrorism expert Steven Emerson as lucky -- and alarming.
"If these three Afghanis figured out how to infiltrate under false Mexican identifies, you can be sure that Islamic terrorists have done the same," said Emerson, who runs the Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism. "This needs to be investigated by Congress and the FBI."