The U.S. could designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations — what would that mean?
The powerful Mexican drug cartel responsible for the kidnapping of four U.S. citizens — and the death of two of them — could be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a hearing in March that the department is considering the designation for the Mexican drug cartels, which could include the Gulf Cartel, the cartel responsible for the attack. The foreign terrorist (FTO) designation has been attracting interest as a tool to use against the cartel in recent years.
Why is it being considered?
The killing of the two American citizens crossed a “red line,” says Javed Ali, associate professor of practice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
The Mexican drug cartels also traffic fentanyl, which is responsible for soaring opioid deaths in the U.S. — over 70,000 Americans died of synthetic opioid overdoses in 2021, most of them caused by fentanyl that comes from Mexico. Last year, the DEA seized enough fentanyl to kill every American, more than 50 million fentanyl-laced pills and over 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder, the vast majority of it at the southern border.
Ali thinks now is the right time to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations, arguing that the U.S. is not currently using “all the tools we have” to counter them.
What makes a group a Foreign Terrorist Organization?
In order to be labeled an FTO a group or network has to meet three criteria:
- Must be foreign-based
- Engages in terrorist activity
- The terrorist activity threatens U.S. citizens or U.S. national security.
How many Foreign Terrorist Organizations are there?
There are over 30 groups designated by the State Department, but none operate solely as drug cartels.
What would re-labeling a group as an FTO actually do?
An FTO designation unlocks the option for more foreign sanctions and a material support charge, which makes it much easier to indict someone on lesser charges if affiliated with the terrorist organization.
“It certainly stigmatizes them,” said Ali. “I would think the last thing a Mexican drug cartel wants is to be labeled by the United States as a terrorist organization. That’s bad for business.”
Does Congress have a role in categorizing a group as an FTO?
The secretary of state makes the designation, in coordination with the attorney general and treasury secretary. Then, it is sent to Congress for review and if it raises no issue with the designation, after seven days, it’s published in the Federal Register, making it official.
Rep. Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, has introduced legislation that asks Blinken to target several cartels for FTO designation: the Gulf Cartel, Cartel Del Noreste, Cartel de Sinaloa and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. In February, 21 Republican attorneys general called on President Joe Biden and Blinken to declare Mexican drug cartels as FTOs.
How would the designation affect drug cartels?
It won’t stop the cartels, Ali says, but it would get their attention — and the attention of anyone working with them. Because of the material support charge available to the U.S. after an FTO designation, the charges would be far more severe for even a low-level offense, such as giving money to the cartel. Donating to an foreign terrorist organization can result in a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Officially labeling the Mexican drug cartels as terrorists emphasizes the national security threat they pose and confers authorizations the U.S. hopes would have a chilling effect.
Downsides to FTO designation?
But there are potential disadvantages to making the designation. It could adversely affect U.S.-Mexico relations.
“We have enormous authority already in dealing with drug trafficking organizations, in terms of all the policing capabilities we have to deal with them, particularly in the United States,” says Pamela Starr, an international relations professor at the University of Southern California. “What it would do, however, is undermine bilateral cooperation with Mexico, and that would dramatically undermine our capacity to deal with the challenges in Mexico.”
And the FTO designation might also damage Mexico’s appeal as a tourist destination by contributing to the perception that it’s less safe.
Starr also warns the designation could radicalize drug cartels further. “My real concern is that if you treat organized crime as if it were a terrorist organization, they might begin to employ terrorist tactics,” Starr said.
In a worst case scenario, the cartel could increase targeting of U.S. citizens, according to Ali.
But Ali argues the FTO designation for Mexican drug cartels is worthwhile. “This level of activity is absolutely having an impact on our national security, more from the flow of drugs in the U.S. than the targeting of Americans in Mexico. But it still gives you another tool. Why not use it when the status quo doesn’t seem to be working?”
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