This Oct. 17, 2019, photo shows clouds of smoke from burning cars mar the skyline of Culiacan, Mexico. The Mexican city lived under drug cartel terror for 12 hours as gang members forced the government to free a drug lord.

This Oct. 17, 2019, photo shows clouds of smoke from burning cars mar the skyline of Culiacan, Mexico. The Mexican city lived under drug cartel terror for 12 hours as gang members forced the government to free a drug lord. AP / Hector Parra

Declaring Mexican Drug Cartels ‘Terrorists’ Is a Bad Old Idea

Trump and Obama policymakers rejected it because it brings no new tools to bear — and quite a few drawbacks.

In a recent interview, President Trump announced his intention to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorists. This is neither a unique nor fashionable idea; the proposal has been discussed and discarded by both the Trump and Obama administrations. I know because I was there during those deliberations, which never lasted long because it became quickly apparent that the move would provide no meaningful benefit, and could do much harm.

To the layperson, it may seem obvious that drug cartels meet the State Department’s broad criteria for inclusion on its Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO, list: 1) they are foreign-based; 2) they carry out terrorist activity; and 3) the terrorist activity is a threat to U.S. national security interests. So why not add the cartels to the list? 

First, doing so would accrue no significant benefits to the U.S. government. Ideally, adding an organization to the list — a discretionary decision reserved for the Secretary of State — should hand our government some new leverage in the fight. But all of the key Mexican drug cartels are already sanctioned under the 1999 Kingpin Act, which imposes severe criminal economic penalties on those who support or are part of these criminal networks. An FTO listing would provide no new tools to the departments of Justice, Treasury, or State. 

Second, doing so could produce quite negative third-order effects. People who help an FTO-listed organization may be prosecuted for providing material support to terrorists, a charge that often brings 15- to 20-year prison sentences. In the past, material-support prosecutions have generally been reserved for U.S.-based terrorist financiers or would-be foreign terrorist fighters who have helped groups like ISIS. But if Mexican drug cartels are placed on the FTO list, it may become possible to prosecute low-level street dealers peddling their product as material supporters. The number of individuals who could get caught in this web could be significant and the impact of it could drain important investigative resources. For instance, the FBI might have to reassign resources to investigate dealers with tenuous links to the cartels, instead of using assets to unravel the next al-Qaeda plot.

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Third, adding the cartels to the FTO list would blur the lines of terrorism and criminality. The list has historically been used against violent groups with political aims. The Mexican cartels are driven by financial interests; they have little interest in, say, deposing the Obrador government and politically ruling Mexico. If criminally motivated groups were added to the terrorist list, where would the State Department draw the line? Would State have to add Brazilian gangs, Chinese groups, and Russian criminal organizations? The office that maintains the list for State’s Counterterrorism Bureau has fewer than 15 people, who are already overworked and underfinanced for their task. Their job becomes much more difficult if they are expected to add criminal groups to the FTO list.

Fourth, the Mexican government has long opposed the addition of the cartels to the FTO list. President Obrador has already publicly stated his opposition to Trump’s idea. When interviewer Bill O’Reilly asked Trump whether the United States would use drones (presumably armed ones) against the cartels, he didn’t say no. There must be great apprehension in Mexico that the United States might violate Mexico’s sovereignty in hot pursuit of the cartels. Moreover, the cost of doing business in Mexico will certainly increase if the terrorist label is applied to the cartels. If nothing else, insurance premiums in Mexico will increase for U.S. businesses as adjustors recalculate risk formulas. Will U.S. businesses leave Mexico? And Mexican officials likely worry about how the listing might affect tourism.

While adding the cartels to the FTO list makes for a good sound bite and will play well within the American electorate, a closer look at the implications paints a different picture. The negative foreign and domestic implications ought to dissuade policymakers from wielding the FTO tool against the cartels.

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