Bill Would Designate Mexican Cartels as Something Other Than Terrorists

Offers the same weapons (deportation, freezing assets, etc.) without overwhelming counter-terrorism apparatus

By Todd Bensman on December 13, 2019

In precious few circumstances anywhere, ever, does it pay to openly dispute the top boss in an organization, especially so right now if you are a federal worker in Washington, D.C.

So when I penned an essay November 27 urging a pause in President Donald Trump's well-intentioned plan to designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), I was speaking on behalf of warriors in his war on Islamic terrorism who do not feel free to speak out. President Trump did hit the pause button for a little while longer, but this had more to do with appeasing Mexico's president rather than anything I had to say.

It shouldn't be lost, though, that quite a number of counterterrorism intelligence workers wrote me on the sly to agree with my thinking. Which was that designating Mexican criminal groups alongside groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is a bad idea, without any planning or forethought as to how to avoid allowing this massive load to damage an American counterterrorism system already maxed out keeping the country safe from Islamic jihadists. Piling on a highly populous new class of regular violent criminals, who keep their darkest deeds on their side of the border anyway and never aspire to randomly murder Americans on U.S. soil, would divert precious resources and investigative attention from disrupting Islamic FTOs that do so all day every day.

"The danger is indeed opening the aperture of an already taxed CT (counterterrorism) community," one military intelligence officer who works on this threat wrote me. "The skill/knowledge sets for working counter-smuggling and counter-terrorism are not the same, so transitioning folks from one problem set to another will not yield immediate results."

Wrote another counterterrorism warrior in active service: "I am still working the problem set and agree with each point you raised. I have said for years that the drug problem is a 'wicked problem' in every sense of the word, but the terrorist designation would not make it any more manageable. ... Terrorist designation should not be an option. I wanted you to know you have support in the 'business.'"

Another said: "I'm a career intel officer. I understand the ramifications of such a designation, so I appreciate you writing about this topic with honesty."

Furtive messages like these also have now been heard through back channels by Republican U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). They, along with seven other powerful Republican co-sponsors, agree with these critical homeland security guardians, staffers tell me, and also with the notion that Mexican cartels do not fit the legal definition of terrorist organizations.

The senators have introduced the Significant Transnational Criminal Organization Designation Act, which leaves America's counterterrorism enterprise alone, but still brings to bear the very same powerful government authorities for which proponents of FTO designation were hoping.

The proposed legislation would add significant transnational criminal organization (STCO) as a separate category to Section 219A of the Immigration and Nationality Act, right next to the FTO one. It includes new definitions of STCO that very snugly fit Mexican cartels and thus guard against delaying, and possibly losing, court challenges that anti-Trumpers would love to file against him for declaring Mexican cartels under the FTO designation, just for the pleasure of obstruction. (To statutorily qualify for FTO designation, groups need to be motivated primarily by a political ideology, and Mexican cartels clearly are not.)

The Cotton/Cruz bill would give federal agencies the same FTO sledge hammers with which to pound the STCOs as hard as terrorist organizations: the ability to freeze financial assets, throw associates out of the country and block them from entering, and prosecute business associates for providing material support.

An important difference is that, whereas responsibility for combating Islamic terrorism statutorily defaults to the FBI as the nation's lead agency and its many delegate agencies, they all would be left unhampered to do national security work the public still expects and demands.

A Senate aide involved in drafting the legislation told me the responsibility for whacking Mexican cartel STCOs would default to federal agencies that do counter-drug-trafficking work: the DEA and the nation's many multi-agency drug task forces that work directly and indirectly on cartel issues, as well as ICE and CBP to hunt down associates and deport them.

"[Cotton and Cruz] understand the intelligence community's concern on this," the aide told me, describing the prospect of a cartel FTO designation as a "messy encroachment on terrorism territory where cartels don't belong."

This legislation thoughtfully provides calls for the very first designation to cover the cartel that murdered nine U.S. Mormon citizens early last month 75 miles inside Sonora, Mexico, a horrific act that resurfaced a drive to have President Trump sic the FTO designation on them.

A few opponents of President Trump's FTO drive have worried aloud that it would prompt a wave of Mexican asylum seekers who would be able to claim victimization by U.S.-designated terrorism organizations. And there's a point to that. But not under this legislation. People running from STCOs don't get the same asylum consideration as people running from ISIS.

The elephant in the room is, of course, whether this legislation can be passed even after the impeachment show ends as expected sometime in January, and before President Trump decides to go ahead with the FTO designation anyway.

My colleague Dan Cadman, who wrote an essay favoring FTO designation alongside my own against, expressed strong doubt that the Cotton/Cruz bill will go anywhere even though he thinks it's a pretty good idea, too. Congress is too divided and past legislation like this has always inexplicably failed even without the partisan canyon running down the middle of the country, he thinks. Given all that, Cadman told me, it would be better if President Trump just declares FTO war on the cartels unilaterally because otherwise nothing will get done yet again.

Valid point.

Still, not to come off as a Pollyanna, but maybe there's a chance for good policy to happen here. To their credit, the drafters of this latest legislation very quickly signed on some powerful Republican supporters that President Trump listens to (such as Lindsey Graham), and they're going after Democratic leaders next, no doubt aware that President Trump could at any moment declare one or more cartels as FTOs.

The window of opportunity to protect the nation's counterterrorism enterprise from inundation is only narrowly open. In addition to Graham, supporters include Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Even Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has signed on, perhaps a beacon for a Democrat or two.

This legislation is one of those rare ones that is naturally and inherently bipartisan, and perhaps ripe for some Democrats to sign on once the impeachment hurricane has spun itself out. After all, who can't get behind legislation that pummels Mexican cartels?

Sometimes just the act of announcing legislation constitutes communication and messaging, whether or not it can actually pass. If President Trump hears this message to preserve his counterterrorism apparatus and avoid a legally challengeable FTO designation, perhaps he'll keep the pause button pushed a little longer to see what can come of this.