Why designating Mexican drug cartels terrorists might not be the way to fight organized crime

Some critics say U.S. President Donald Trump's recent suggestion that Mexican drug cartels be designated terrorist organizations is a politically motivated move that would have unintended consequences for trade and border security.

'It's the wrong instrument,' says former Mexican ambassador to the U.S.

Omar Trevino Morales, known as the Z-42 leader of the Zetas drug cartel, is escorted by soldiers during a media conference on his arrest in Mexico City in March 2015. U.S. President Donald Trump floated the idea of designating drug cartels terrorist organizations, but critics say such a move is not an effective way to fight organized crime. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Donald Trump's recent suggestion that Mexican drug cartels be designated foreign terrorist organizations is likely to be ineffective in addressing the problem of violent criminal gangs, says a former Mexican ambassador to the United States.

Arturo Sarukhan, who was Mexico's representative in Washington from 2007 to 2013, says the idea is another way for the U.S. president to use Mexico as a political piñata and would also seriously harm bilateral relations between the two countries, impacting trade and border security.

"It's the wrong instrument, and it's the wrong toolbox," Sarukhan told CBC News from Washington.

"Regardless of how violent criminal organizations have become in Mexico, the toolbox that you use to confront terrorist organizations is very different from the tool box that you need to confront the roots of organized crime."

Former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly asked Trump directly in an interview Tuesday if he would designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations and "start hitting them with drones and things like that."

"They will be designated," Trump said.

He stressed that the process is complicated but that he's "been working on that for the last 90 days."

More than a symbolic designation

It's not the first time Trump has suggested Mexican drug cartels be given the same designation as terrorist groups. He floated the idea in response to a direct question during an Oval Office interview with Breitbart News in March.

The more than 60 groups that fall under the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation range from international terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda and ISIS to groups operating within one country or region, such as Boko Haram and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). 

Trump raised the idea in response to a question in a radio interview with political commentator Bill O'Reilly earlier this week. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The list includes extremist groups with religious or political aims but generally does not include organized crime, though groups such as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group, which was removed in 2014, did engage in drug trafficking.

To determine whether a group should be designated as an FTO, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism looks at its past activities and whether it is planning or has the capability to carry out future acts that threaten the security and national interest of the U.S.

The designation has practical and symbolic power. It is illegal to provide an FTO with material support and resources, and members of such groups are barred from entering the United States.

In some cases, such as Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the FTO label sends a message to the rest of the world about how the U.S. views a specific group's behaviour. 

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denounced Trump's idea as interventionism and said he would ask his foreign minister to engage in talks on the issue. (Mexican government handout via Reuters)

Mexican foreign minister to lead talks

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was quick to reject Trump's idea, decrying it as "interventionism." He said Mexico would take up the issue after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, and his foreign minister would lead talks with his U.S. counterparts.

"Co-operation, yes; intervention, no" Lopez Obrador said in a morning news conference Wednesday.

Sarukhan says Trump's recent revival of the FTO idea seems to be a response to calls among conservatives and right wing groups to take action in the wake of the violent murder of nine members of an American Mormon family living in northern Mexico at the beginning of November.

Family and friends carry coffins that contain the remains of Dawna Ray Langford, 43, and her sons Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, who were killed in a drug cartel ambush earlier this month that left nine American women and children dead. Trump's recent comments are thought to be in part a reaction to that ambush. (Marco Ugarte/The Associated Press)

The botched takedown of a drug kingpin's son in October might have also fuelled Trump's decision, he said.

Sarukhan says Trump is using the cartels as he has the issue of illegal immigration at the border — making Mexico a punching bag to rile up his base in advance of the 2020 presidential election.

"This fits perfectly into the way he's tried to portray border security and the national security threat emanating from the Mexican side of the border," Sarukhan said.

Cartels not politically motivated

Terrorism researcher Marcus Allen Boyd says it's hard to define Mexican cartels as terrorist groups. The majority of the violence they perpetrate doesn't fit accepted definitions of terrorism, because it's generally not used to achieve political, economic, religious or social goals.

"These folks are doing organized criminal violence, and they are not trying to effect some sort of change in policy through violence," said Boyd, the director of geospatial research at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

"There's lots of fighting in between different cartels for territory, for resources, for control and then fighting against the government.... It doesn't really fit the criteria."

One difference between drug lords such as Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, who was convicted of running an industrial-scale smuggling operation in February, and leaders of terrorist organizations is that the former are not politically motivated, said terrorism researcher Marcus Allen Boyd. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

Notorious kingpins such as Juan "El Chapo" Guzman are not ideologically driven, he said.

The fluid nature of the cartels' membership and leadership also makes it hard to define them, said Adam Isacson, a defence researcher with the human rights group Washington Office on Latin America. 

"When you look at that terrorist list, every single group there has a very specific name. Mexican cartels change names and identities all the time," Isacson said.

"In 2006, Mexico had really two or three big cartels. And now, you can name about a dozen that are of significant power."

In a 2018 report, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classified Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel as "the greatest criminal drug threat in the United States."

Unintended consequences

Sarukhan says there could be unintended consequences to declaring Mexican cartels FTOs. For example, drug users in the U.S. who buy illicit Mexican drugs and U.S. gun shops that sell weapons used in the drug trade in Mexico could be seen as providing material support to terrorists.

"It's the weapons being illicitly sold in the U.S. that end up in the hands of organized crime in Mexico which provide them with the firepower, and it's revenue from a very important consumer market of illicit drugs in the U.S. that is providing them with the resources to push back against the state," he said.

U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehend undocumented migrants after they illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, in April. Designating cartels terrorist organization could make it easier for some migrants to make asylum claims in the U.S. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

Similarly, people who are extorted by the cartels and pay them could be seen as providing help to a terrorist group. 

Isacson says another consequence could be the strengthening of asylum claims of Mexicans fleeing persecution by the cartels, who could have a stronger case at the U.S. border if they were fleeing a terrorist organization.

"All of a sudden, you're being threatened by a group that is now in the same status as ISIS, so that definitely makes your asylum claim a lot stronger."

Go after the money

The Bush and Obama administrations floated the same idea as Trump when Sarukhan was ambassador, but neither followed through when presented with counter-arguments. 

Sarukhan says a more holistic approach is needed to address the cartels, with focus on strengthening legal institutions and pushing for judicial reform in Mexico. He'd also like to see a crackdown on the illegal guns heading south from the U.S. into Mexico.

He says one tool in the counterterrorism toolkit that would be effective against the cartels is a crackdown on their finances and cash supplies.

"Very few things, I think, will move the needle more quickly in the fight against transnational organized crime than going after their resources and their money."

Members of a special unit of the Mexican Army conduct a patrol as part of an operation to increase security after cartel gunmen clashed with federal forces in Sinaloa state in October. (Reuters)


Steven D'Souza

Co-host, The Fifth Estate

Steven D'Souza is a co-host with The Fifth Estate. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.