Rice Promises Tighter Security at U.S.-Mexican Border

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza, second from right, as she arrives Thursday in downtown Mexico City.

Saying that al Qaeda terrorists may be trying to sneak into the United States through Mexico and Canada, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday promised a robust effort to strengthen border security.

"There's no secret that al Qaeda will try to get into this country and into other countries by any means that they possibly can," Rice told reporters. "That's how they managed to do it before, and they will do everything that they can to cross borders."

The top U.S. diplomat met with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez in high-level talks that focused heavily on border security, immigration and improving economic ties between the United States and Mexico.

Rice announced a $10 million grant to help nurture development of small businesses in Mexico, particularly those involving women, and joined Mexican officials in resolving a lingering water dispute between Mexico and South Texas farmers. Mexico agreed to repay most -- but not all -- of the Rio Grande water owed to Texas under a 1944 treaty.

The daylong trip was Rice's first visit to Mexico since she became secretary of state five weeks ago.

In testimony before Congress last month, Adm. James Loy, who at the time was deputy secretary of Homeland Security, said intelligence strongly suggested that "al Qaeda has considered using the Southwest border to infiltrate the United States," possibly with the help of criminal gangs operating along the border.

Rice confirmed that U.S. officials "have from time to time had reports about al Qaeda trying to use our southern border," as well as the northern border with Canada.

Estimates of immigrants crossing the Mexican border each year into the United States range from hundreds of thousands to millions. Increasingly, they transit Mexico from other countries, and often elude outnumbered border patrol officers.

Rice said that border security will be a top priority of new Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and will be high on the agenda of a summit between President Bush, Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin on March 23 at Bush's ranch in Crawford.

Mexican government officials have been testy about recent remarks by the Bush administration about Mexico's security problems. Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha said Thursday in Madrid that there were no terrorists in Mexico.