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Would Trump label Mexican cartels terrorist organizations?

This type of shift could have serious policy implications.

- March 26, 2019

In a recent interview, President Trump said he is “very seriously” considering labeling Mexican drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Some other politicians and activist groups support the move.

This would be an extreme policy shift — and might not result in the intended consequences. Does this approach make sense for dealing with criminal organizations in Mexico? Here’s what you need to know:

1. What is FTO status?

Since 1997, the State Department has named dozens of militant groups as FTOs. This makes them subject to U.S. economic and other sanctions.

FTO designation is a powerful tool. It’s an influential global symbol, identifying certain militant groups as threats. When the State Department designates a group a “terrorist organization,” other countries are more likely to follow suit. My research suggests that when the State Department designates militant groups in U.S.-aligned countries as FTOs, there is a substantial reduction in violence.

FTO designation also has drawbacks — it can complicate peace processes. Proscribing militant groups can also adversely affect humanitarian aid, charities and broader communities. Here’s why: people and groups fear they could unwittingly provide “material support” for a listed group, potentially resulting in prosecution.

2. Are Mexican cartels terrorist organizations?

Mexican cartels use horrifying violence — my research suggests this amounts to what are, arguably, terrorist tactics. Criminal groups around the world also use these tactics, although usually at a lower scale than the Mexican groups. Regardless, it’s not clear that sometimes using terrorist-like violence makes groups “terrorist organizations.”

Is Mexico the second-deadliest ‘conflict zone’ in the world? Probably not.

Experts on terrorism and organized crime often distinguish between terrorist groups and criminal groups for a number of reasons. Political or social change motivates terrorists, primarily — while criminals are primarily motivated by making money. There are of course some overlaps between group types — some cartels use extreme violence, and some terrorists sell drugs. But generally, groups specialize in one type of activity or the other.

3. What happens when governments apply counterterrorism policy to criminals?

How we label groups is not simply a theoretical issue. There are serious policy implications.

Using a counterterrorism designation for criminal groups would legally codify the notion that these groups are terrorists — like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. This would signal to U.S. agencies and U.S. allies around the world that counterterrorism is the right approach for groups more typically thought of as criminals.

Applying counterterrorism frameworks to organized crime, and particularly drug traffickers, is not new. The United States has long encouraged Latin American governments to use counterterrorism or counterinsurgency approaches against criminal groups, but with mixed results.

Certain tactics — like leadership targeting — often work against more political groups like terrorists, but usually backfire against criminal groups, as I explained previously here in the Monkey Cage.

Does taking out a kingpin – like El Chapo – actually reduce violence?

Leadership targeting has been effective for counterinsurgency because it can be an important symbolic blow, and symbolism matters for political groups. For criminal groups, however, leadership targeting simply creates job openings and market opportunities. This often leads to massive bloodshed, as we’ve seen in Mexico.

While counterterror and counternarcotics operations often overlap, FTO designation seems likely to signal a drastic change in U.S. counterterrorism policy.

What precedent would this set? Would the United States also label the Sicilian mafia terrorists? The mafia has also used symbolic violence and attacked politicians. Would some U.S. street gangs be labeled domestic terrorists?

Trump declared a controversial state of emergency. That can erode democracy.

4. Here’s why this would tie Mexico’s hands

Sanctions restrict or prohibit government agencies from working with listed groups. This is probably why the Taliban was never designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (although its members are subject to other financial sanctions through the Department of the Treasury), and why human rights groups and some diplomats have fought FTO designation in other countries.

Similarly, designating Mexican cartels as FTOs would limit Mexico’s options. This is especially noteworthy because Mexico’s new president is considering negotiations or amnesties to reduce cartel violence.

FTO designation would complicate any Mexican government deals for criminal groups, and U.S. agencies or NGOs that might want to help a potential Mexican peace process would be constrained as well.

5. Sanctions could be redundant

A final reason to question the FTO label for criminal groups is that it’s not clear there would be any value-added from the designation.

The Treasury Department already imposes sanctions on criminal groups and their businesses in Mexico. These are the same organizations and individuals who would be sanctioned if these groups were designated as FTOs.

Calling cartels FTOs would impose redundant sanctions, while sending a confusing message about terrorism — doubling down on the questionable notion that criminals are “terrorists.”

Brian J. Phillips is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government at the University of Essex, and an affiliated professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City. He lived and worked in Mexico from 2010-2018.