Honduran authorities are investigating five Syrians—including four university students—who were captured in Tegucigalpa's airport Wednesday while trying to board a plane with stolen Greek passports.
An alleged sixth member of the group, a 25-year-old Syrian woman who was also traveling with a false Greek passport, was arrested this morning in Costa Rica. So far there's no evidence linking any of the Syrians to terrorist cells or activity.
“It’s completely ruled out that [the detained Syrians] belong to a violent group,” Carolina Menjivar, Director of the Honduran National Migration Institute, told reporters.
Honduran authorities, however, are asking for more time to investigate the matter thoroughly.
“The Honduran Prosecutor's office has asked for 48 more hours to continue the investigations,” Honduran National Migration Institute spokesman Rene Gomez Pinel told Fusion. “We still don’t know the intentions of the travelers, but we know four of them were university students, one a career professional and two speak English. So far there’s no evidence that links these travelers to irregular groups."
Gomez Pinel would not confirm if the U.S. was involved in the investigation.
Gomez Pinel said the passports were reported as stolen in Athens. He confirmed the Syrian men used them to travel to Lebanon, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica, before getting caught in Honduras trying to catch a local flight to San Pedro Sula, the industrial hub on the Central American country's northern coast. The suspects intended final destination was the U.S., according to Honduran officials.
It's not the first time Syrians have been caught in Latin America using fake Greek passports. Last weekend, Paraguayan authorities detained a Syrian national attempting to travel with a Greek passport that contained false information.
News of the Syrians' arrests is sparking alarm in the United States, where some fear that Syrian refugees will use smuggling routes through Central America and Mexico to sneak into the U.S.
But immigration experts note that Syrian emigrants moving through Latin America is nothing new, and Americans shouldn't rush to false conclusions about terrorism.
“The flow of Asians, especially Indians, Chinese and other nationalities from Central and Southern Asia, coming from Central America and passing through Mexico, has existed for several years,” said Mexican and Central American immigration expert Ernesto Rodriguez. “There’s also flows from Iraq, Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent Syria.”
The recent Paris attacks, however, make everything seem a little more sinister.
“The world is full of soft targets and we are likely to see more attacks,” Mexico City-based North America security and immigration expert Athanasios Hristoulas told Fusion. “In this specific case, I don’t buy it completely that [the detained Syrians in Honduras have] no links to irregular groups. To do what they did costs money. The stolen passports, the security checks they passed, this is something professionals do.”
“This is not refugee know-how,” he added.
The issue raises new concerns about border security, since the Syrians slipped through many countries before being detected. And some borders, such as the one between Mexico and Guatemala, is “mostly unsupervised and that opens a worrisome flank,” says Gema Santamaria, an international relations professor at Mexico City-based research university ITAM.
Santamaria said there’s a “latent possibility” that terrorists attempt to cross into the U.S. using Central American and Mexican human-smuggling routes controlled by gangs. However, she said cooperation between criminal groups isn't always easy.
“Many people in the past have tried to link groups like al-Qaeda to the Mara Salvatrucha gangs or Latin American drug cartels, and that’s simply not viable because of their modus operandi," she said. "They aren’t compatible ideologically, and their political agendas couldn’t be more different."
But she says it's better to be safe than sorry.
“This is a time for Mexico and Central America, which tend to see terrorism and political violence as distant issues, to assume the role of responsible neighbors,” she told Fusion.