US officials are considering designating Mexican drug trafficking organizations as terrorist groups, but labeling criminals as terrorists would mischaracterize the security threat and apply the wrong tools to tackle the problem.
Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Attorney General Merrick Garland said they would consider designating Mexican crime groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) in recent testimony to US Senate committees.
Their statements came in response to questions from Senator Lindsey Graham, who later introduced a bill to designate all of Mexico’s most prominent criminal organizations as FTOs.
Calls to designate Mexican crime groups as FTOs to come as fentanyl trafficked by these organizations contributes to an ongoing crisis of drug abuse and overdose deaths in the United States.
“It’s a horrible epidemic. But it’s an epidemic that has been unleashed on purpose by the Sinaloa and the New Generation Jalisco cartels,” Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Advocates of the FTO designation say it would beef up the US law enforcement response to Mexican organized crime, allowing for tougher sanctions and increased criminal penalties. But the White House itself has questioned that premise.
“Designating these cartels as foreign terrorist organizations would not grant us any additional authorities that we don’t already have,” a National Security Council spokesperson told InSight Crime.
The Wrong Tools
The lack of an FTO designation hasn’t prevented US law enforcement from pursuing terrorism-related investigations and prosecutions against crime groups. Although the Central American gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is not designated by the United States as an FTO, US prosecutors nonetheless have repeatedly leveled terrorism charges against alleged gang members.
An FTO designation may not bolster US law enforcement’s response to Mexican organized crime. But it could have a far greater impact by opening the door for US military action against these groups.
In early March, Senator Graham called for drone strikes against drug labs on Mexican territory, saying, “We’re going to unleash the fury and might of the United States against these cartels.” This echoes several other calls from current and former lawmakers to move to a more militaristic response to organized crime.
However, the Mexican government led by President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador has rejected using American military force inside Mexico’s borders and has called potential FTO designations “propaganda.”
If the US took military action in Mexico without permission, it would almost certainly violate international law while generating an immense diplomatic backlash from Mexico and other nations.
Moreover, militarized counterterrorism approaches are unlikely to be effective against organized crime because terrorists and criminals have radically different motivations.
While organized crime groups and terrorists may use similar tactics, like bombings and kidnappings, their actions have different objectives. Terrorists have a political goal, whereas organized crime groups use violence for profit, not politics.
Because terrorist groups are motivated by ideology, taking out the group’s leadership can often debilitate or even dismantle the entire network. But taking out a criminal leader doesn’t destroy the demand for the illicit goods and services their group provides. And as long as that demand remains, a new leader or a rival group will step in to fill it.
“It’s like digging sand,” said Robert J. Bunker, an expert on violent non-state actors at the University of Southern California, told InSight Crime. “A lot of the organizations rise and fall … or fragment. But ultimately, new organizations come in and hook into the illicit economy.”
Senator Graham has likened his proposal to Plan Colombia, an initiative started around the turn of the century in which the US and Colombian governments cooperated to combat guerrilla groups involved in cocaine traffickings, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
But the FARC and ELN were political insurgencies. The purely criminal organizations Graham has proposed targeting in Mexico are not. And the political dynamics were completely different — Colombia’s government considered these groups terrorists and the country welcomed US security assistance.
Even still, Plan Colombia had mixed results. The ELN is still active, as are factions of the now-demobilized FARC, more than two decades after Plan Colombia began. Cocaine production and trafficking remain at all-time highs.
The discussion around designating Mexican crime groups as terrorists appear to stem more from political expediency than from an interest in sound security policy-making.
“The terrorist label seems to have great appeal not because it expands legal authority, but because it sends a loud message,” Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, told US political news website, The Hill.
US officials have struggled to accurately conceptualize the security threat posed by Mexican crime groups, and instead have fallen back on politically charged rhetoric that complicates thoughtful policymaking.
In a recent Senate hearing on fentanyl trafficking, lawmakers and crime-fighting officials blamed the US drug problem largely on Mexico’s “cartels,” vastly oversimplifying and mischaracterizing the nature of these complex criminal networks.
Calling these groups terrorists would similarly skew the debate over how to most effectively respond to the threat.