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Why were Mexican students at rebel camp in Ecuador?

MEXICO CITY — At least five Mexican nationals were present at a rebel camp where a top insurgent commander was killed last weekend in Ecuador, leaving Mexicans to speculate on why they were there.

Experts say that it's the first time Mexican nationals have been known to die alongside members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America's oldest guerrilla group.

Their presence added to questions of a possible link between FARC and a spate of pipeline bombings in Mexico last year that cut off fuel supplies to major industrial operations, including a Volkswagen factory. Mexican police officials noted then that the bombings, claimed by the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, differed radically from the group's previous targets of ATM machines and other "nuisance bombings."

The police said then that the pipeline bombings — which are a common FARC tactic in Colombia — were so sophisticated that whoever did them may have received special training.

Also present in the Ecuador camp were an unknown number of Chileans.

Ecuador's security minister, Gustavo Larrea, said Friday that as many as four Mexicans were killed in the March 1 attack. A fifth Mexican, 26-year-old Lucia Morett, survived.

The Mexicans and Chileans apparently were planning to speak before a FARC meeting when they were killed. Journalists given a tour of the camp organized by the Ecuador government Thursday were shown a classroom area and what appeared to be an agenda for the meeting.

Mexican news outlets identified the dead as Juan Gonzalez del Castillo, Natalia Velasquez, Fernando Franco Delgado, and Soren Ulises Aviles Angeles. The National Autonomous University of Mexico said Morett, Velasquez, Delgado and Gonzalez del Castillo were students there. The newspaper El Universal said Aviles Angeles was a student at National Polytechnic Institute.

Both Morett and Gonzalez del Castillo were members of a radical student group that supported the FARC, according to the group's Web site.

Friends and classmates described Gonzalez del Castillo and Morett as "activists" and "internationalist militants," but not guerrilla fighters.

El Tiempo, a leading Colombian newspaper in Bogota, quoted Morett saying in a bedside interview that she received explosives training. Her parents denied the report.

Larrea, Ecuador's Security Minister, told reporters there that "more than 10, a large group" of young people under 24, died in the attack that also killed the FARC's No. 2 commander, Raul Reyes.

Larrea said members of the student group were "studying" the oldest armed rebel movement in South America. But university officials said they had not sent any group to study the rebel movement.

FARC has a history with Mexico and UNAM. The rebel group once had an office there, but it was closed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, when the FARC was declared a terrorist group.

Colombian officials have said for months that their intelligence shows the FARC has been operating clandestinely throughout Mexico. Now, they say, they have pictures of Mexicans being trained.

"Don't forget that we now we have photos of Raul Reyes with many Chileans and Mexicans who were conducting training to take back to their countries. We don't know with what purpose," Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said in Belgium Thursday.

Some students continue to be sympathetic to the rebel group's causes. Posters supporting the FARC decorate some walls in the Philosophy and Letters school.

Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez, who sent troops to the border with Colombia after the March 1 raid, was a quite public face in Mexico during the 2006 presidential election. President Felipe Calderon, a conservative, won the election by a slim margin after running ads comparing his chief rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to the radical Venezuelan president.

Documents uncovered from the computer of the dead rebel leader, Reyes, FARC's second-in-command, also reveal a discussion of drugs and arms sales with unidentified Lebanese militants who offered to bring the weapons to Mexico where they could be picked up by the FARC.

In an April 8 letter, a guerrilla identified as "Daniel" writes that an associate "with great economic power" was offering to broker a deal with Lebanese militants to buy missiles.

"They offer arms of all class, including missiles..." Daniel writes. "They have airplanes, boats and they assume the responsibility to deliver what they buy at the border."

Another possible FARC link with Mexico is in the drug trade. FARC has long been accused of raising funds by selling cocaine, and Mexico is on a major route of illegal drugs heading to the U.S. market.

Diego Enrique Osorno, a Mexico City reporter at Milenio newspaper, who covers guerrilla groups, said the drug cartels have guns, economic power and police influence. But they lack military intelligence, he said.

"Imagine if they join forces with the FARC," he said. "That's a combination that's more explosive than ever."

That's exactly what happened in Colombia where guerrilla groups got involved in the drug trade to fund their operations.

Of continuing concern in the United States is that the FARC has been holding U.S. contractors Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves hostage since 2003 when their small plane crashed in southern Colombia. Documents recovered from Reyes' laptop suggest that the FARC has proposed exchanging some 40 hostages, including the three U.S. military contractors, for hundreds of rebels currently in Colombia's jails.

(Ordonez reports for The Charlotte Observer. Kevin G. Hall in Washington and special correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky in Angostura, Ecuador, contributed to this article.)

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