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Should Cartels be Considered Terrorist Organizations: A Mexican Perspective

On February 7, during his State of the Union address, United States President Joe Biden acknowledged the crisis that his country is facing due to the avalanche of fentanyl that is reaching its territory, killing more and more Americans every year.

The White House

Just last year, fentanyl overdose deaths exceeded 70,000 cases. To reduce this influx, Biden has promised to increase inspections at the U.S./Mexico border to stop the flow of drugs.

In response to the president's promise, 21 state prosecutors, all from Republican-controlled states and led by Virginia prosecutor Jason Miyares, wrote a letter to Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken requesting that Mexican cartels be designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).

Classifying cartels as terrorist organizations would also U.S. agencies to freeze cartel assets, deny entry to cartel members, and allow prosecutors to pursue tougher punishments against those who provide material support to the cartels, according to the letter.

However, this is not a newly imagined initiative, as calls to legally label Mexican cartels as terrorists have been floated in Washington for the past 15 years.

In the previous legislative session, Republicans Chip Roy of Texas and Roger Marshall of Kansas presented initiatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively, promoting this particular designation.

Additionally, thanks to the publication of various memoirs from military and diplomatic officials within the Trump administration, we also now know the extent to which Washington was considering military involvement against cartels.

One account even suggested a plan to use American troops on the ground in Mexico to degrade and destroy cartel capabilities.

Even more recently, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott issued an executive order in September 2022 designating the Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations, though this had little effect. This is primarily because states' jurisdiction over combating terrorism is fairly limited in scope and capability.


Perception In Mexico

Presidencia de la República

In some business circles in Mexico, the possibility of the United States advancing this designation is welcomed, assuming that this would allow for the rapid control of criminal groups and grant access to significant resources.

However, this couldn't be further from reality.

This would put the Mexican government in a position of extreme vulnerability, fomenting long-term institutional weakening, and completely altering the constitution of forces on the ground.

Additionally, Mexico is heavily dependent on foreign trade activity and a U.S. label of FTO would massively hinder economic recovery, as potential trade partners would shy away from a country with poor security.

Other consequences of this designation would be the flurry of economic sanctions and other non-military actions taken by the United States.

These could include:

  • Reducing bilateral cooperation programs,

  • Suspending correspondent banks from the organization's host country in the banking and financial system of the United States, rendering Mexico ineligible for US capital loans and investments,

  • Prohibiting or restricting imports from Mexico,

  • or Ordering that U.S. representatives in multilateral economic organizations vote against credit lines for Mexico.

In the midst of an already tumultuous economic recovery, exacerbated by the pandemic, businesses cannot afford to be impacted by any other outside variables.

The Mexican administrations of Presidents Calderón, Peña Nieto, and now López Obrador have been firm in their stance against this designation. However, the current administration's reluctance to cooperate directly with American officials has reduced the space for constructive dialogue and has led to unilateral action being taken by Washington.

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