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Why Trump Should Hit Pause On Designating Mexican Cartels As Terrorists


President Trump’s surprise revelation last week to talk show host Bill O’Reilly that he had moved to designate Mexican drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) begs some hard questions. For the last few months, President Trump explained, the proposal has been going through a process of consideration, probably the U.S. State Department’s six-steps for FTO designation, so it’s not official yet. That’s good, because someone needs to hit the pause button on this.

The designation of cartels as terrorists a la the Islamic State and al-Qaeda portends a dramatic restructuring of the American counterterrorism enterprise built after 9/11 to suppress Islamic jihadist groups. How adding a highly populous new class of “terrorists” to the workload would be done without creating Attention Deficit Disorder for the war on Islamic terrorism is never explained. This whole endeavor should be put up for some public comment until it is.

Depending on which and how many of the nine major cartels are designated—and no one is saying—a massive new layer of “Mexican terrorists” would potentially divert resources and investigative attention from currently designated Islamic terrorist FTOs, which, unlike the cartels, actually aspire to kill as many Americans as possible on American soil.

No deep thinking, proposals, or analyses have accompanied the often emotional designation calls of recent years, the latest fueled by the Sinaloa cartel’s early November slaughter of nine dual-citizenship American women and children inside Mexico. Designating Mexican cartels on a par with ISIS comes off right now as logistically problematic, devoid of national security justification, and a redundant distraction from the Islamist terror threat.

A Legal Mismatch

First, it helps to know that Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act allows the U.S. secretary of State to designate FTOs if an organization is 1. Foreign; 2. Engages in terrorist activity defined as “politically motivated” and targets “noncombatants,” and 3. Pursues activities that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or U.S. national security.

For groups deemed to fit that bill, agencies like the FBI, U.S. Attorney General’s Office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Treasury Department could freeze cash and assets, prosecute people for “material support” of terrorism, and bar or remove from the country non-citizens associated with FTOs.

Designation proponents don’t have to work hard to show that Mexico’s cartels certainly look and act like ISIS with tactics to control drug trafficking routes over the U.S. border. Proponents argue the violence is political in that it coerces Mexican state, local, and federal government to leave the trafficking business alone. They argue that cartels threaten American national security by providing the drugs that kill tens of thousands of Americans and that an eventual Mexican state failure portends dystopian effects on the United States.

Most of these arguments are weakly supported. Take the assertion that Mexican cartels have the required political or ideological motive. That’s a very far stretch; academics who study cartels mostly agree that profit is at the motivation for all their violence, including acts against office-holders and candidates. No similar acrobatics are necessary for Islamic terror organizations, which openly state that their motivating ideology is to destroy the United States and enslave the survivors.

It would certainly be entertaining to see who might step forward with a legal challenge at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on this one. But even if, at President Trump’s insistence, the State Department somehow shoe-horns the cartels into the statutorily necessary ideological definition, there’s another legal problem in need of a shoe-horn: that Mexican drug cartels threaten U.S. national security.

Questionable as a U.S. National Security Threat

The cartels do not threaten U.S. national security much, certainly not in the directed way that Islamic terrorist organizations do.

Yes, the murdered Mormon families were U.S. citizens, but the place of their killings (75 miles south of the U.S. southern border) drives home the point that most garish cartel massacres do not occur on U.S. soil. The vast majority of the dead are Mexicans on Mexican turf. Mexico’s nonstop massacres do not create the intolerable feeling of threat among average American citizens living in America.

Only a fractionally small number of Americans are killed and kidnapped inside Mexican territory and sometimes on the U.S. side, although some are hardly random “noncombatants.” Mexican cartels have never dedicated themselves to any strategy to destroy America or to randomly kill its people in, say, a Minneapolis shopping mall or at the Dallas Cowboys stadium. Furious, all-night gun battles may rage and bodies hang from bridges but almost always, almost scrupulously so, inside Mexico.

Cleveland, Ohio need not worry. That’s because cartels know that it is in their revenue interest to avoid provoking the ire of the general U.S. population, no doubt aware that American ire has inspired harsh reactions such U.S. military invasions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. That would be bad for business.

One of the most cited national security justifications for FTO designation is the opioid crisis and drug overdose deaths. But this supposition falls apart on examination. While Islamic terrorist groups would no doubt purposefully drug masses of Americans to death, Mexican cartels want them alive and paying. A prosperous United States is the most vital source of continuing wealth accumulation for cartels.

American drug consumers do not fit the definition of innocent noncombatants who do nothing contributing to their overdose deaths; they willingly buy the drug cartels’ supply. Their deaths are more akin to suicides. Any argument that this voluntary transactional circumstance presents a national security threat on the order of World Trade Center Tower destruction and vehicle-ramming attacks on New York bike paths can’t really be taken seriously.

Lastly, Mexico has been “failing” as a state for 20 years and is likely to remain fragile, weak, and coopted so far as it suits the cartel drug industry, but intact enough to still imperfectly provide basic services to most of its population and to remain a U.S. trading partner for the foreseeable future. The cartels have never expressed interest in overthrowing the central government and running the country. Mexican cartels only hope to coopt Mexico’s government institutions enough to keep drugs flowing, guided by a simple motive no more aspirational than accumulating cash.

I agree with most experts that Mexico is fragile and the potential effects of state failure are similar to those of Venezuela, which propelled waves of desperate people into neighboring countries and damaging trading partners. But the question of Mexico’s imminent demise, and even what the effects would be for the United States, has been in running debate for 20 years of terrible behavior by cartels that, again, have shown no interest in seizing Mexico’s central government and running the country.

I’ve seen no analytical prognoses as to whether FTO designation presents some kind of panacea that would weaken the highly adaptable cartels enough to forestall state failures they do not want. Without serious study of cause and effect, FTO designation is left to look like a feel-good political shot in the arm, albeit one that may severely and needlessly set back proven counterterrorism efforts against violent Islamists.

Watering Down the Soup

For counterterrorism work, potentially anyone who associates with a designated terrorist organization is potentially subject to, for instance, placement on terrorism watch and no-fly lists. All of literally tens of thousands of people worldwide who participate in the cartel industry would become subject to U.S. material support for terror investigations, asset freeze processes, questioning at airports and border inspection stations, and new ICE operational priorities to hunt down deportable Mexican cartel terrorists.

It’s never been clear outside of law enforcement intelligence circles how many people work directly for Mexico’s cartels, but there were nine major ones as of this summer, according to the Congressional Research Service. Former Texas Department of Public Safety Captain Jaeson Jones, who collected intelligence on the cartels for years, estimated that just the Sinaloa cartel probably fields close to 35,000 employees. Probably tens of thousands more work for all the cartels just in Mexico, he said, in operations, security, and logistics. But this wouldn’t include thousands more who work for American transnational gangs that move cartel product from the border to the U.S. interior, or the street-level Crips and Bloods gang members who do the distribution.

The problem is that, absent some thoughtful scoping, human resources planning, and burden-sharing plans, an FTO designation of one or more cartels could easily crash the American counterterrorism system, or spread personnel too thin to effectively work either problem.

Mexico’s National Security Problem to Fix

The Mexican cartels qualify for what is known in business and homeland security as a “wicked problem,” meaning it may well be impossible to solve. That does not mean governments should ever give up trying to manage, contain, and reduce wicked problems like drunken driving, pedophilia, domestic abuse, and vice of every kind.

American law enforcement already does much to help Mexico combat the cartels under the Kingpin Act, and Transnational Criminal Organization designations, which allow for financial disruption and the use of other American tools. The United States provides military and intelligence assistance to the Mexicans, an important, working extradition treaty, and significant security aid. The DEA is active and present helping the Mexicans with major drug investigations.

But this is Mexico’s national security problem to fix, not an American one. The United States should continue programs to strengthen Mexico’s central government and contain cartel violence on Mexican territory, and make business harder for them with President Trump’s wall.

The sometimes shrill insistences that each new gun battle, outrageous atrocity, or U.S. opioid suicide imminently threaten U.S. national security do not calm the waters necessary for good policy formulation that leave American counterterrorism undisturbed.