MEXICO CITY — A reputed Cuban intelligence official who fled to Mexico seeking political asylum was summarily sent home Wednesday, raising a howl of protest from human rights officials who said they feared for his life.
Pedro Riera Escalante, a former Cuban diplomat based in Mexico, admitted to authorities here that he had specialized in spying on CIA operations abroad, according to human rights activists who had helped the Cuban in his quest for asylum.
"He had a lot of information that was compromising about the Mexican and Cuban governments," said Edelmiro Castellanos, one of the activists.
Castellanos said Mexican officials had indicated that Riera would receive asylum, but that on Tuesday evening the former Cuban official was snatched by a team of pistol-packing men in plain clothes as he emerged from a meeting with a Mexican intelligence official at a Mexico City restaurant. They bundled him into an unmarked white truck and sped off, Castellanos said.
"They yelled, so that the passersby would hear, that they were from the National Migration Institute," Castellanos, who witnessed the event, told a news conference.
It wasn't until Wednesday that Mexican immigration officials confirmed that they had detained the Cuban. They deported him Wednesday morning.
Mexican government officials offered conflicting explanations for the expulsion. Alejandro Carrillo Castro, head of the National Migration Institute, which is Mexico's immigration agency, told reporters that Riera was kicked out because he had entered Mexico illegally.
Asked about the Cuban's asylum request, Carrillo Castro said, "He never made it before migration authorities, which is where you can begin any process of seeking political asylum or refuge."
However, a spokesman for Mexico's Foreign Ministry said the Cuban had indeed asked for asylum on Sept. 8. Officials there told him he had to go to the Interior Ministry.
"That same day, with the knowledge and consent of the petitioner, the Interior Ministry was informed of the case," Foreign Ministry spokesman Oscar Ramirez said in a statement. The Interior Ministry oversees immigration.
The case is puzzling because it occurred as Mexico's relationship with Cuba has cooled. During the Cold War, Mexico maintained close ties with Fidel Castro's island, to the occasional irritation of Washington.
But President-elect Vicente Fox has indicated that he will change such relations established by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, during its 71-year-rule. The PRI lost the presidential election in July to Fox of the center-right National Action Party.
Human rights activists blasted the government for Riera's deportation, saying it had broken international treaties barring the return of asylum-seekers to countries where they could face torture or worse.
Rafael Alvarez of the Miguel Agustin Pro Human Rights Center, a prominent Roman Catholic group that had been counseling Riera, said the Cuban could be charged with treason. "We fear for his life," Alvarez said.
"There were illegalities in [Riera's] detention and disappearance, and in keeping him incommunicado," he said.
Carrillo Castro, the immigration chief, denied in a telephone interview that his agency had made a mistake. "It was his error. He did not ask for political asylum from the authorities who by law should have handled it."
Alvarez and Castellanos said Riera had been consul in Mexico from 1988 to 1994. He told them he had spied on CIA activities in Mexico.
Castellanos, who is a Cuban exile and also a journalist, said Riera had fled to Mexico in early September after facing harassment at home. Castellanos did not have information on what Riera had been doing in recent years, or exactly what prompted him to break with the Cuban government.
The Cuban Embassy in Mexico confirmed that Riera had been consul in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A press spokesman said he had no further information on the case.