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Why designating Mexican cartels terrorists would make things worse

Stopping the flow of fentanyl into the United States will require a more thoughtful, diplomatic approach.

Analysis | Latin America

Earlier this year, Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proposed designating Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. 

“We need to dismantle and disincentivize Mexico’s cartels in every way possible,” argued Kennedy in a press release. “Designating these murderers as foreign terrorist organizations would give U.S. officials more tools to use in putting the cartels and the networks that support them behind bars.”

The immediate impetus for this bill was the kidnapping of four Americans in Matamoros and an uptick in clashes between cartels in the same locale. Its backers also contend that it would help stanch the flow of fentanyl and other dangerous drugs into the United States.

It is imperative for policymakers to understand that this is an inappropriate use of the FTO designation and courts greater risks than benefits for U.S. national security. It would overextend U.S. counterterrorism authorities beyond their capabilities and jeopardize U.S.-Mexico relations in the long-term. Perhaps most importantly, it would do little to solve the opioid crisis that lawmakers claim to be addressing with this drastic step.

What is terrorism?

The State Department, which manages FTO designations, defines terrorism as “a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure; and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, kidnapping, or hostage-taking.”

At first glance, it may seem as though the cartels would fit within this definition. They do engage in criminal acts such as assassinations and hostage-taking, all of which are meant to incite fear among civilian populations while intimidating governments and rival cartels. However, what is missing from these acts is the political or ideological motive that drives terrorist organizations to adopt these tactics. For instance, the Islamic State is committed to establishing a hardline Islamist government. The cartels have no similar interest. They do not intend to overthrow Mexico’s government or to establish a formal state. Their only objective is to make money.

With sanctions, U.S. military involvement in Mexico may become more likely due to the increasingly integrated role of the military in U.S. counterterrorism activities since 9/11. Some lawmakers have already proposed invading Mexico in order to fight the cartels. This would be nothing short of disastrous. As studies have shown, the U.S. military would likely kill more civilians than their intended targets. It would also likely radicalize local populations and cause American forces to become entangled in another insurgency that it can’t defeat, as in Afghanistan where the War on Drugs became militarized. 

In addition to the loss of life and limb, the military enforcing sanctions against cartels would violate Mexican sovereignty and undermine our ability to cooperate with Mexican law enforcement in addressing these organizations. Moreover, it would reduce economic cooperation with one of America’s largest trading partners and bring them closer to U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China.

As China continues to assert its influence in Latin America, it has placed a premium on strengthening its economic ties to Mexico. In 2021, Chinese and Mexican trade surpassed $100 billion. A year later, Chinese foreign direct investment reached $282 million, which will increase in the coming years. 

It is unlikely that China would be a cooperative partner for Mexico's efforts against the cartels. The criminal groups do not threaten Chinese national security and have bolstered China’s own role in the international drug trade and relationship with the cartels. As a recent unsealed indictment from the Department of Justice showed, Mexican cartels have been collaborating with Chinese chemical companies to purchase ingredients for making fentanyl.

Sanctioning the cartels would only further consolidate their relationships with these companies. With tense relations with both Chinese and Mexican authorities, the U.S. could isolate itself from Mexico, which is a necessary partner in addressing the current opioid crisis that has killed millions of Americans.

Similarly, Russia has developed significant economic and political ties with Mexico. In 2018 Mexico canceled a $1.4 billion order of U.S. military equipment and purchased several Russian military helicopters. Moscow has also extended millions of dollars in exports to Northern Triangle countries as part of its efforts to further expand its influence in the region. There have also been reports that the Wagner Group has attempted to extend its reach in Latin America, including by establishing an office in Mexico City.

Possible solutions 

In lieu of aggressive action against the cartels, the U.S. should instead support stronger capacity building efforts between Mexican law enforcement and intelligence services. In return, the U.S. would receive greater cooperation in targeting the cartels, their supporters, and most importantly, their finances. Mexico would have plenty of reason to cooperate given its interest in addressing the relationship that the cartels share with criminal actors in the U.S.

As a recent Harvard study found, 70-90 percent of illicit firearms trafficked in Mexico originated in America. Through their continued participation in illicit firearms trafficking, these cartels have been able to further extend their violent campaign against civilians. The United States threatens to worsen this problem through risky arms sales to Mexico, where reforms are needed to prevent the diversion of armaments.

These reforms should include efforts to strengthen its Conventional Arms Transfer policy through the development of enforceable guidelines that aren’t exclusively under the purview of the White House. It must also tighten export controls on non-military export items, which were loosened during the Trump Administration by shifting them to the Commerce Control List. By shifting these weapons to the Commerce Control List, there is less oversight on security risks created by their sale to high-risk countries such as Mexico. 

To make long-term gains against the cartels, Washington must organize a more strategic approach to combating them. This approach must be one that favors diplomacy, law enforcement and intelligence over militarism and the misuse of counterterrorism authorities.

Mexican National Guard officers patrol the streets of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in December, 2021. (Elena Berd/ Shutterstock)
Analysis | Latin America
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