It's Time to Designate Cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations

By Dan Cadman on November 27, 2019

After nine dual-citizen U.S./Mexican Mormons were murdered in Sonora State proximate to the U.S. border, President Trump reacted on Twitter by urging the president of Mexico to declare war on the cartels, one of which was responsible for the shocking butchery of women and children. He offered help, including use of our military.

The tweets ignited the usual Twitter storm, both positive and negative. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) responded that war was to be avoided at all costs; not a surprising reaction from the president of a country with which in the past we have engaged in armed conflicts from all-out war to deadly cross-border skirmishes.

AMLO's unwillingness to confront the cartels that have effectively seized power throughout Mexico has led to anger among his own senior military and police figures — at least, those who aren't on the take from the incredibly wealthy cartel bosses. His reticence was demonstrated beyond dispute when security forces seized one of El Chapo's sons, only to be told to release him when hundreds of cartel gunmen arrived, pigeon-holed those forces in a fierce gunfight, and AMLO's advisors ordered him released to the gunmen.

Many of the security forces involved in the takedown were so shaken by the position they'd been put in that they begged the son not to conduct reprisals against them or their families—for naught. Thirteen outgunned and outnumbered police were murdered shortly after; another officer was ambushed and shot more than 150 times in his personal vehicle at a strip mall.

Given the flood of drugs, cartel members, and smuggled humans passing north, and high-caliber weapons, ammunition, money, and other contraband passing south, it's reasonable to say our own government has also been ineffective. The levels of societal violence on our side of the border aren't in a league with the horrific escalation in Mexico, but we shouldn't presume that cartel violence on our side of the border doesn't exist. Many drug-related murders in U.S. border states and major metropolitan areas are the direct result of struggles for control between cartels, in much the same way that al Qaeda and ISIS fight for preeminence in the arena of Islamist jihad.

U.S. diplomatic personnel have been brazenly attacked and U.S. enforcement agents murdered on the Mexican side when it suits cartel interests to make clear who owns the countryside and holds the levers of power. To engage in more robust ways with Mexico, we must up our own game.

Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs)

Among the proposals being mulled by the administration is whether to designate Mexico's major cartels as foreign terrorist organizations under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). It's overdue. Section 219 provides that the secretary of state may designate a group as a FTO on finding that it engages in terrorist activity as defined at INA Section 212(a)(3) or terrorism as defined at 22 U.S.C. Section 2656f(d)(2). Cartel conduct clearly meets the threshold definitions, including specifically as a threat to the national security of the United States.

Designation carries with it a variety of sanctions, penalties, and authorities that are desirable from enforcement and intelligence perspectives. Upon designation, every member, associate, affiliate, and hanger-on may be prosecuted or deported under U.S. laws. Equally important, those who provide any form of financial or material support whatsoever are prosecutable and removable. When bringing actions against cartel leaders, this opens up a tremendous range not available to U.S. authorities now are constrained generally to proving drug and drug-related violations (such as money laundering). Using this avenue follows the "Al Capone theory of law enforcement": If you can't nail them for racketeering or murder (or drugs), because they've insulated themselves well, go for whatever you can get that puts them out of business and behind bars. It also reaches beyond the leaders down into the lower levels, which is often important because without key soldiers or quartermasters who supply logistics and infrastructure, there is no army.

It's been reported that AMLO says Mexico will "reject" such a designation. This, of course, has no effect on what the United States chooses to do, but what are we to make of such a Vichy-like proclamation, which smacks of capitulation in the face of the escalating violence and thuggishness of cartels?

The National Security Threat

We share a 1,954-mile border with our southern neighbor, over rough terrain that renders it difficult to defend or enforce, most of it with no physical barriers or only nominally fenced or walled. As of July 2018, Mexico had an estimated population of 125,959,205 people, placing it as the 11th most populous nation on earth. Mexico is often referred to as the "gateway" to the United States from the lower Americas, but "massive superhighway" might better describe it by depth and breadth, even by current standards where illegal immigration is concerned. Over a million apprehensions were made by the Border Patrol in fiscal year 2019. What would happen if both of Mexico's northern and southern borders were left wide open by a government no longer able to effect control? U.S. border agents have been overwhelmed in the past couple of years by the level of illegal border-crossers. What they would face in the event of a Mexican government collapse would be catastrophic.

Cartels are inextricably linked to cross-border smuggling. The reason is simple: There's an astounding amount of money made, and just as the Mafia proved itself adept at all manner of illegal conduct to enhance its money flows, so it is with Mexican criminal syndicates today. Money equals power; more money equals more power; and more power ensures an extended reach into virtually every level of Mexico's political and social institutions.

If the United States is thought to have national security interests in such far-flung places as Somalia and Afghanistan — and we do — it is inconceivable that we would not recognize the national security risk inherent in Mexico's current state of affairs.

Limits of the "Failed State" Analogy

Much energy and ink have been spent by proponents and opponents of invoking Section 219, hinging on whether or not Mexico is a "failed state". I'm guilty of that sin. But whether or it is not it is, in many ways, irrelevant. Certainly it's abnormal when a nation experiences such a hyperinflation of cartel-related violence that bodies are strung from railway bridges in major metropolitan areas, garbage bags containing large amounts of dismembered bodies litter the roads, and the chief executive seems unable or unwilling to confront the violence or the corruption that help make it possible.

At what point is a nation a failed state? Who decides? Is it by consensus among the always-fractious and self-interested international community of nations? Is it in the national security interest of the United States to wait until there's clear consensus? Almost certainly not, because by then it's too late. Organs of our government such as the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have for years had plans to deal with mass emergencies on our southern border, but, as they say, plans only exist until first contact with operational reality, and we should not rely on untested plans pulled out of dusty drawers to keep us safe if the bottom falls out. Steps we can take now should be taken, and one of those things is to designate cartels.

Let's do a quick thought experiment. Consider this statement: "The cartels control the growth and flow of drugs through and out of the country. They control vast swaths of the countryside. They have become de facto governments in the areas they control, levying taxes, punishing malefactors according to their internal code, and swaying ordinary folks with a combination of fear on one hand and offers of services the real government doesn't provide on the other. They suborn military and security forces when they can, and murder them when they can't." Now, substitute the word "cartels" everywhere it appears, for the word "Taliban", which is, not coincidentally, an FTO. There is no difference, except that Mexico is not 7,400 miles away from us. It's just across the Rio Grande.

FTO Precedents

There is ample precedent for naming narco-terrorist organizations onto the list. The Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path") FTO of Peru is one example. There is even some evidence that as a part of its narco-terrorist activities, Shining Path has engaged in substantial cooperation with Colombian traffickers, as well as Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.

The reference to Colombian traffickers leads us to another example. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, despite pretensions at Marxist ideology, is the country's largest drug trafficking organization. It is also an FTO. As with Shining Path, there are reports that FARC has links with, and conducted military-style training for, Mexico's Jalisco Cartel.

Diversion of Resources

Some observers are concerned that designation of cartels as FTOs would result in a distraction from the U.S. government focus on international terrorists such as al Qaeda and ISIS. I believe that American intelligence and enforcement resources are more flexible and capable of adaptation than such a fear suggests. I saw the rapid build-up of U.S. civilian counterterrorism responses after 9/11. This fear also overlooks the fact that enforcement and intelligence — and in fact military — agencies are already focused on the threat posed by cartels. One reason that John Kelly was chosen by President Trump to head DHS was because he had been the military commander of SouthCom, which was and remains heavily invested in aiding Latin American countries such as Colombia and Peru in their struggle against narcoterrorists such as FARC and Shining Path. Significant resources of the federal government are allocated to such efforts, and designation of cartels would probably mean simply modifying existing organizational structures to assimilate and synergize what's already a ground reality. There's little likelihood of diminution of other important terrorist targets, many of whom are also involved in narco-terrorist activities, including the Taliban, Hizballah, and others. Using all the tools in the U.S. government's toolbox should be viewed as a positive, not a negative. FTO designation is a powerful tool.

One last point to make about cartel influence over Mexico is this: We are already concerned over the porous nature of our southern border, where it is entirely possible that jihadi terrorists might choose to infiltrate. Certainly there are significant indicia that is already the case (see here, here, and here). Imagine how easy that would become if the situation worsens in Mexico. Can we allow that to happen?


People of good will separate on either side of the FTO divide. But from this author's perspective, proclaiming the cartels as FTOs is not only a logical step, it's long overdue. Official designation brings with it a multiplicity of legal authorities and penalties that can make a difference in how the United States responds, in our own interest, to the struggle for control of Mexico.