Hold Off: Designating Mexican Cartels as Terrorists Could Dilute War on Jihadists

By Todd Bensman on November 27, 2019

President Donald Trump has revealed that his administration is well on its way to formally designating Mexico's drug-trafficking cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), the same as ISIS or al-Qaeda. Should such a designation actually go through, it is argued, an arsenal of American authorities used to suppress the likes of ISIS would supposedly be wheeled into a fight to preserve U.S. national security from the Mexican cartels.

The president's impulse to get this done quickly is understandable. But it's not too late to hit the pause button. The national security justifications that proponents of FTO designation pose are unpersuasive, and there's no evidence that they or anyone in government have done the serious analysis or planning — or any deep thinking at all, frankly — to assess the impacts of adding tens of thousands of Mexican "terrorists" to America's counterterrorism efforts against Islamic jihadist organizations.

The president's revelation to radio talk show host Bill O'Reilly shows he actually took to heart rising calls for an FTO designation after the latest series of shocking cartel affronts to humanity amid all-out warfare inside Mexico. Among the skyrocketing homicide body counts attributed to Mexico's nine major cartels was the Sinaloa Cartel's slaughter of nine Mormon women and children, holding U.S. and Mexican dual citizenship, inside Mexico,. Also showcasing the apparent impunity with which cartels feel free to commit outrages under government impotence was the humiliating defeat of Mexican forces in the city of Culiacan, where the government was forced to release the newly captured son of drug lord "El Chapo" Guazman.

Little dissent has emerged among voices urging designation; after all, who wouldn't relish crushing new American punishments against such disgusting organizations?

The unanswered question, though, is whether an emotionally gratifying FTO designation for the Mexican cartels would strain, perhaps to breaking, America's war on some 70 currently designated Islamic terrorist groups that aspire, emphatically unlike any of Mexico's cartels, to kill as many Americans as possible on American soil. The administration's effort has been underway for several months, according to the president, and one would hope internal planning is underway to properly resource the FBI, Department of Justice, U.S. Treasury, National Counterterrorism Center, and other agencies to accommodate a vast new layer of Mexican cartel "terrorists".

But to date, none of the calls for FTO designation have circulated accompanied by well-developed impact assessments, ideas, or even evidence of casual awareness about how American counterterrorism agencies already fully engaged in suppressing violent Islamist FTOs would shoulder potentially tens of thousands of new Mexican terrorists and their untold thousands of U.S. cohorts overnight, undistracted from that original noble and, I would argue, more relevant effort.

If the U.S. government insists on adding a massive layer of new terrorists to existing U.S. counterterrorism systems, plans for how to resource it and allocate the greater burden among agencies, without taking from the war on terror, should be laid out first. The administration owes the American public assurances that vital national security systems do not get broken for no real reason.

Are Mexican Cartels Really an Urgent National Security Threat?

The uninitiated reader should 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 as defined in section 1182 (a)(3)(b), which means group activities must be "politically motivated" and target "noncombatants"; and 3) the organization's terrorist activity threatens the security of U.S. nationals or U.S. national security.

The United States would be able to crack down in three ways that would fall primarily on the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Treasury Department. The United States 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 argue that Mexican cartel violence is political in that it seeks to coerce Mexican state, local, and federal governments to leave their trafficking business unmolested. They argue that cartels threaten American national security in that they provide drugs that kill tens of thousands and destabilize one of America's biggest trading partners to a degree that could, some distant day, result in Venezuela-style collapse right next door.

These assertions are not well supported.

For starters, the assertion that Mexican cartels have the statutorily required ideological motive is a far stretch, not that anyone will rush to challenge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; profit motive is indisputably at the root of their violence, including murders of Mexican office-holders and political candidates. An important differentiation in justifying FTO designation for Islamist groups but not profit-motivated criminal groups, is that Islamist FTOs repeatedly state, with follow-through action, that their motivating ideology is to destroy the very idea of America, to randomly kill its people to create the terror necessary for that, and to enslave survivors under an Islamic caliphate.

Quite the opposite is true of Mexican criminal groups. The location of the Mormon family murder, 75 miles south of the border, stands as a case in point that cartels keep their dirty business in Mexico out of strategic interest. Yes, a fractionally small number of Americans are killed and kidnapped inside Mexico, where the risks of living and travel are well known, and sometimes in gruesome fashion on the U.S. side.

But the cartels seek neither to randomly target nor broadly threaten Americans at, say, shopping malls or at marathon runs to inspire terror in the American heartland. They have never aspired to destroy America.

Furious gun battles may rage and bodies hang from bridges but, scrupulously so, inside Mexico for fear of drawing harsh U.S. tactical responses that can disrupt revenue. Mexicans, not Americans, are doing the dying. It is decidedly not in their revenue interest to create the intolerable feeling of threat among average Americans, no doubt knowing that kind of feeling inspired ongoing U.S. military involvements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

The opioid drug overdose crisis is one of the most-cited national security justifications for terrorism designation. But this supposition seems weak and three times removed as a national security threat. It's not as though the Mexican cartels, unlike Islamic terrorist organizations, purposefully set out to poison Americans to death en masse as part of a grand plan. Americans cannot reasonably be called random, noncombantant victims of the suppliers because they willingly buy the drugs. Cartel bosses want Americans alive so they can keep paying for drugs. They want the United States to prosper as their own most vital source of wealth.

That this voluntary transactional circumstance presents a national security threat on the order of World Trade Center destruction and vehicle ramming attacks on New York bike paths can't really even be taken seriously.

Lastly, Mexico has been "failing" as a state for 20 years and, I suspect, is going to keep on that way, fragile, weak, and coopted so far as it suits the cartel drug industry. But intact enough to imperfectly provide basic services to most of its population and remain a U.S. trading partner for the foreseeable future, like a lot of countries. The cartels have never expressed interest in running Mexico.

The U.S. designation of the Colombian cocaine cartel FARC as an FTO is no precedent. Conveniently overlooked in comparisons is the fact that FARC aspired to take over Colombia's central government and implement an extreme Marxist ideology highly antithetical to U.S. interests, and almost did it. Whereas the Mexican cartels only seek to co-opt Mexican government in areas it makes sense to keep drugs flowing, guided by an "ideology" of cash accumulation.

I agree with most experts that Mexico is fragile. The imagined impacts of state failure are dystopian but not unrealistic: waves of desperate people rushing the U.S. border, U.S. economic disruptions on a large scale, and perhaps even a costly American military intervention. We can all argue in circles about how close Mexico is to such a catastrophe or whether these envisioned nightmares might come true, or when, over yet another 20 years.

But in the meantime, the real question is whether FTO designation would do much to forestall a high-consequence state failure. Where is any predictive analysis that designation might forestall state collapse when cartels are globally notorious for adapting to every tactic ever thrown at them? FTO designation strikes me as a blind shot in the dark, albeit one that would needlessly damage proven counterterrorism efforts against Islamic terrorists.

Overloading the Mule

One prominent counterterrorism analyst, Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently issued the lonely assessment that an FTO designation would "essentially inundate" U.S. systems currently in place to tackle Islamic terrorism.

Just how many people the nine identified Mexican cartels employ is unknown outside of law enforcement intelligence. Former Texas Department of Public Safety Captain Jaeson Jones, who collected intelligence on the cartels for years, estimated that the Sinaloa Cartel alone probably has 35,000 employees. Whatever the number is, FTO designation would potentially saddle thousands of new problems onto the American counterterrorism infrastructure of FBI field offices and all others that assist the bureau with its primary mission of preventing Islamist terror attacks.

Yet no one has identified which groups, subgroups, and micro-groups would go into the vast new "Mexican cartel terrorism" saddlebags to be thrown on the mule's back. This kind of analysis matters because in counterterrorism concerning Islamist FTOs, anyone who associates with them — even with a telephone call — becomes potentially subject to placement on terrorism watch lists and no-fly lists and added to prosecutorial and investigative caseloads.

This universe can become vast; thousands of U.S.-based transnational groups work hand and glove with the cartels as middle-man distribution networks. Crips, Bloods, and even motorcycle club street gangs distribute cartel product in American neighborhoods. Specialists move, hide, and launder money. Will everyone go onto the mule's back? A lot? A select few, to become subject to U.S. material support for terror investigations, asset freeze processes, questioning at airports and border inspection stations, and new ICE operations to hunt down the deportable ones?

Absent advance scoping, needs analysis, criteria-setting, and human-resources planning, the workload could crush American counterterrorism infrastructure overnight — the FBI, Treasury, DHS, CIA, federal prosecutors — or diffuse abilities to do either problem justice.

Furthermore, once a precedent is set labeling transnational criminal organizations as terrorists, why stop at Mexican cartels? Where would a pile-on of regular criminal groups end after this precedent is set?


Designation proponents don't have to work hard to show that Mexico's cartels certainly look, act, and feel like ISIS in their bloody tactics to control drug trafficking routes over the American border. It may well be time to expand the traditional FTO definitions and of how we use American powers normally reserved for Islamist FTOs. But it shouldn't happen without a good idea about how doing so would affect efforts on other national priorities.

The sometimes shrill calls, with each new gun battle or atrocity, that Mexican cartels imminently threaten U.S. national security don't hold up under scrutiny, at least not without more evidence. Neither do they calm the waters necessary for good policy formulation.

Now we know the Trump State Department is working though the six-step process required for an FTO designation. That means there is still time and a process by which to reconsider this. Everyone involved should think this through.