Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are determined to infiltrate into the United States by using the porous and insecure borders of both Canada and Mexico, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her first trip south of the border since assuming her new post.

Rice today echoed warnings made by FBI Director Robert Mueller to a congressional panel earlier this week about the continuing threat al-Qaida poses at the borders.

“Indeed we have from time to time had reports about al-Qaida trying to use our southern border but also trying to use our northern border,” Rice told reporters. “There is no secret that al-Qaida will try to get into this country and into other countries by any means they possibly can.

She also suggested she believes al-Qaida has been successful in the past at penetrating the borders.

“That’s how they managed to do it before and they will do everything that they can to cross the borders,” she said.

Recent intelligence from current investigations, detentions and other sources suggests that al-Qaida has considered using the Southwest border to infiltrate the United States, according to testimony from a top Homeland Security Department official last month before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Several al-Qaida leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico, and also believe illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons,” James Loy, deputy secretary at the time, said in his testimony.

Rice said progress has been made in securing the border since Sept. 11, 2001. But she also said the United States is obligated to alert its citizens of concerns.

“We and the Mexicans have a robust dialogue about border security, and I believe we’re going to continue to have that,” she said. “This is not a matter of pointing fingers. This is a matter of really trying to get the best possible coordination and work that we can so that there’s safety for citizens in both countries, on both sides of the border.”

She said Washington does not support vigilante groups that are recruiting volunteers to patrol the border for undocumented Mexican crossers.

President Bush’s former national security adviser faced a diplomatic test in her first visit to Mexico. She discussed with Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez immigration, border issues, free trade and economic growth.

Recently, Mexican politicians have accused the Bush administration of interfering with Mexico’s internal affairs. They have denounced U.S. officials’ comments about human rights abuses, drug trafficking and possible election related instability.

Mexico was angered by a recent U.S. travel warning for Americans going to Mexico’s northern border. Yet both Rice and Derbez praised relations in a news conference.

Mexican officials called the atmosphere one of friendship and cooperation. Rice spoke of “a close neighbor and friend” and said the neighbors “shared a partnership of prosperity.”

While Rice made no mention of any specific efforts to enlist the help of the Mexican government in deterring terrorists, she did announce on her one-day trip to meet with President Vicente Fox and Derbez that the two countries had settled a decades-old, cross-water debt.

Mexico will transfer enough water to the United States to cover a debt that Texas has claimed that Mexico has owed under a 1944 treaty. That water-sharing pact requires Mexico to send the United States an average of 350,000 acre-feet of water annually from six Rio Grande tributaries. The United States in return must send Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet from the Colorado River.

Rice also was announcing a $10 million grant to support the expansion of a Mexican program that provides citizens with banking services and small business loans.

Previous stories:

FBI chief warns of aliens from al-Qaida-tied nations

Financial squeeze pushes al-Qaida south of border

Al-Qaida south of the border

Terrorist base south of border

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