COATZACOALCOS, Mexico—When a group claiming to be part of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia called in February for jihadists to strike Mexican oil installations in a bid to cripple the U.S. economy, Mexico announced that its navy had gone on alert and had stepped up surveillance of offshore oil platforms and port facilities.
A month later, however, a McClatchy reporter was able to approach Mexican oil installations virtually unchallenged, raising questions about how secure Mexico's ports are from terrorist attacks.
After Canada, Mexico is the largest foreign source of crude for the oil-addicted U.S. economy. An attack that seriously disrupted that supply could drive up gasoline prices in the U.S. as well as disrupt Mexico's economy, which is heavily dependent on oil revenues.
Last month, a McClatchy reporter was able to get close to an offshore oil platform off the Gulf of Mexico port city of Paraiso in the state of Tabasco without being challenged. The platform pumps oil from Cantarell, Mexico's gigantic undersea oil field, which is among the world's largest.
Two days later in the neighboring oil-rich state of Veracruz, the reporter came alongside a massive double-hulled oil tanker, the Eagle Tampa, in the port of Coatzacoalcos, even talking with the ship's captain, an Indian national. The Singapore-registered ship is operated by American Eagle Tankers, whose parent company is Malaysia's state oil company, Petronas.
To prevent tipping off terrorists, McClatchy won't reveal exactly how it avoided Mexican port security. But the ease with which the reporter approached installations at a time of supposedly heightened security underscores the difficulty that Mexico faces in securing its ports and oil installations.
The Mexican navy, the state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, and the ship's owners in London declined to discuss specific or general questions about security. The port administrator in Coatzacoalcos, Gilberto Rios Ruiz, said it appeared that the security breakdown had occurred in the state oil company, since it's charged with regulating a checkpoint that grants access to its Pajaritos terminal.
The Eagle Tampa's cordial captain was handed a business card, and he politely discussed global port-security issues while complaining that tough security regulations at U.S. ports often prohibit his young crew from going on shore leave.
In one instance, a heavily armed security guard at the oil terminal came within inches of the journalist in Coatzacoalcos but never asked for identification or probed why an unauthorized foreigner was in a supposedly protected terminal.
Port security has been a major issue in the United States and elsewhere since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with critics saying that not nearly enough attention is being paid to security at seaports, which receive millions of containers annually, only a few of which are inspected.
James Giermanski, an international business professor at North Carolina's Belmont Abbey College, outside Charlotte, and a specialist in Mexican transportation and cargo-security issues, said Mexican cargo and port security remained weak links in U.S. efforts to prevent the smuggling of a "dirty" bomb or entrance by would-be terrorists.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff visited Mexico on Feb. 16, the day after reports of the al-Qaida threat surfaced. He's scheduled to visit Mexico again this month.
Chertoff's spokesman, Russ Knocke, declined to detail what the two countries have discussed or what they'll discuss next month. But he confirmed that port and cargo security are on the agenda and praised Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderon, for aggressive steps on security matters.
"As a common North America, an impact to security such as a terrorist attack to any one of the North American partners is going to have ramifications to the other partners. There is a very clear recognition of that reality among our partners in Mexico," Knocke said. "We're satisfied that our partners in Mexico are taking important steps to contribute to the security of North America."
On Feb. 15, the group that calls itself the Al Qaida Organization in the Arabian Peninsula threatened Mexico, Canada and Venezuela in an article that appeared in the online magazine the Voice of Jihad.
"Oil interests in all regions from which the United States benefits should be hit, not only in the Middle East," the group wrote, according to news reports.
"The aim is to cut all (U.S.) imports (of oil)," the group wrote, calling on jihadists to "gather information and chose the target carefully." It cited oil wells and export pipelines as potential targets, as well as loading platforms and oil tankers like those that McClatchy accessed.
Mexico exported more than 575 million barrels of oil to the United States last year, averaging 1.57 million per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Some terrorism experts doubt the seriousness of the February threat.
"It hasn't been within their recent modus operandi," said Bruce Hoffman, a professor and security expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "They're opportunistic, but it's impossible to say. They've generally operated where they have some kind of infrastructure. That would be a determining factor."
Another doubter is Peter Chalk, a terror expert for the RAND Corp., a policy organization that works closely with the U.S. military.
"I don't see the jihadist movement interested enough or strategic enough to mount attacks that are designed to cause economic disruption," Chalk said. "They are picking up on our own fears. If they were successful, sure, it would economically hurt us. But they don't have the wherewithal and I don't think they have the motivation."
Some Mexican officials also think that would-be terrorists would be spotted more easily in Mexico because its population is more homogenous than those of the United States and Canada, with their large numbers of ethnic groups.
"I think a foreigner would stand out," said Miguel Angel Del Rio Virgen, the president of a commission of Mexico's Congress that's charged with overseeing the navy.
That view, however, assumes that a would-be terrorist would come from the Middle East and discounts the fact that there are large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants in countries such as Paraguay and Argentina, where U.S. officials report widespread support for Hezbollah and Hamas, two groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, who's also implicated in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, used his own Pakistani passport in 1995 to travel to South America's so-called tri-border region, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. In 1998, the United States asked Brazil to capture Mohammed on a tip that he was hiding in the area. He was captured in Pakistan on March 1, 2002, and is in detention at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.
Del Rio Virgen expressed confidence that Mexico's navy has adequate resources to protect its oil installations, and bristled when he heard that a reporter had penetrated port security.
"I know many Mexicans who have crossed your border, some who even work in Washington," he said. "That doesn't mean there isn't protection" in the United States.
The top five crude-oil exporters to the U.S. market last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Figures are in barrels.
_Saudi Arabia, 518,739,000
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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