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Are Mexican Cartels Terrorist Organizations?

Federal law offers a tool in the fight against cartels that Trump almost invoked before advisers convinced him to back down.


Yulizsa Ramirez and Nohemí Medina Martinez left their home in El Paso, Texas, to visit relatives on the Mexican side of the city, Ciudad Juárez, on January 15, 2022. That afternoon was the last time they would say goodbye to their family. They were found the next morning, their bodies dismembered and stuffed inside of two black trash bags. The remains showed evidence of torture—at least the remains that were found. The women’s heads, arms, and legs provided enough evidence for Mexican officials to identify them. Most of their organs were missing. The Ramirezes were survived by their three adopted children, who now join the ranks of many millions of children who have survived the deaths of nearly 400,000 people in the decades-long cartel war being waged to America’s immediate south.

The grisly murders, decried as a hate crime against the lesbian married couple, prompted a fierce response from security officials in the region. Chihuahua’s Security Roundtable was scheduled for that afternoon, and the officials gathered undoubtedly received the message intended by the slayings. Chihuahua’s governor declared the the perpetrators would be caught and punished, but in a city infamous for the femicide of thousands and a nation where 90 percent of murders remain unsolved, the declaration rang hollow. The murders fulfilled their purpose: to demonstrate that the border belongs to organized cartels and they can do whatever they please, security roundtables be damned.

Violence of this nature has prompted each of the last three U.S. presidents to consider the designation of cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C § 1189. The last consideration came directly from the Trump Oval Office in 2019, declared via tweet after cartel members opened fire on and murdered nine U.S. citizens driving south from Arizona to a wedding in the Mormon community of La Mora. The president’s advisers quickly moved to suppress Trump’s better instincts. Armed with a ludicrous Heritage Foundation study asserting cartel FTO designation would allow for asylum claims from “every continent except Antarctica,” they eventually dissuaded the president. Weeks later, offered concessions including cooperation on the now litigated “Remain in Mexico” policy from Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Trump relented on his tweet’s promise to “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”

In the face of this retreat, and as result of the Biden administration’s willful abandonment of enforcement, the U.S. border has endured a spike in illegal crossings, along with the violence and drugs accompanying it. Mexico reported a 2021 (routinely undercounted) homicide figure of an astounding 33,308—including 1,004 femicides. Just over 90,000 people are reported “missing” in Mexico as well, a euphemism for the unlocated victims of the cartels. Paired with the alarming new development of fentanyl trafficking, which inflicted the lion’s share of the United States’ 2021 record-shattering overdose count of 100,000, those numbers have led to renewed calls for the designation of cartels as FTOs. Senator Tom Cotton, Texas governor Greg Abbott, and Texas congressman Chip Roy have each filed bills or written letters to the Biden administration in support of the move.

Each politician has argued that Mexican drug cartel activity fulfills the three-part test Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act requires. First, an FTO must be a foreign organization. This is straightforward enough. Six major cartels control the majority of cross-border drug and human smuggling traffic, while an estimated 400 smaller splinter gangs and cells operate in Mexico. Second, the organization must engage in terrorist activity or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity. Terrorist activity is defined in statute as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Here, the argument is mired in controversy.

A common refrain among drug-war detente advocates is that cartels seek monetary profit and their violence does not further political or social objectives. It’s a point that sounds reasonable to the disinterested observer in Washington but doesn’t stand proper scrutiny. Modern cartels control entire territorial swaths of Mexico, supplanting civil authorities. Recent estimates show that just over 20 percent of the nation is under the direct control and administration of various cartels, larger territory than Bangladesh or Greece. In these regions of the failed state, cartels assume the basic duties of governance abandoned by the defeated federales. Cartels pave roads, provide employment, and even promise security from rival gangs. Of course, threats to their consolidation of power are dealt with ruthlessly. More journalists are assassinated annually in Mexico than in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Mexican military routinely clashes with heavily armed cartel contingents, reminiscent of U.S. clashes with Islamic terrorist organizations in the Mideast. In Sinaloa, one of Mexico’s lawless regions, the Mexican National Guard was engaged in battle and defeated after capturing and detaining kingpin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s son. Mexico’s security forces withdrew from Culiacán after coming under intense attack from hundreds of Sinaloa cartel members armed with assault rifles and truck-mounted heavy machine guns. Even the security force helicopters retreated under small-arms fire and from threat of the cartel’s advanced anti-aircraft weapons. In the end, El Chapo’s son was released by President López Obrador to restore peace. The local prison was also emptied, freeing hundreds of gang members and erasing years of progress in the region’s war. Surely an honest observer could admit this is the behavior of an organization that is accomplishing social and political objectives.

Finally, the terrorist activity must threaten the security of the United States or United States nationals. As demonstrated by the more than 1,000,000 American drug overdose deaths since 1999, this standard is met. The slaughter of the La Mora Mormon community meets the standard alone, along with the deaths of other U.S. citizens killed by the gangs. The presence of a failed state to our immediate south, and the potential for a total collapse of Mexican federal authority, also directly threatens U.S. national security. The case is clear: Mexican cartels not only meet but likely exceed Section 219’s standards.

FTO designation advocates have varied opinions on the proper scope and use of the designation’s powers. An FTO designation provides extraterritorial jurisdiction and allows the prosecution of those who provide resources or materially support the cartels as aiding foreign terrorism. This would significantly strengthen prosecutorial power, allowing for longer prison sentences, in many cases for life. Second, the designation of cartels as FTOs enables law enforcement to freeze cartel financial assets. Most of these new powers would overlap with the powers already granted by the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act, but there is precedent for simultaneous designation in the battle against Colombia’s previously titanic cartels.

Third, and most controversially, the designation opens the door to the future use of U.S. military assets in assistance of law enforcement agencies. President Trump alluded to this course of action, tweeting, “the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” He was correct. The Mexican cartels are too powerful, militarily and politically, to be effectively contained by failing and easily corrupted Mexican security forces. Highly limited, prudent use of military assets like drones could quickly erode cartel capability.

This proposal has, in the past, been quickly met with several objections of varying credibility. First, detente advocates liken cartels to common criminals best fought with traditional law enforcement. This ignores the rapid development of cartel military capability, most notably, the rise of “New Generation” cartels composed of former Mexican special forces with U.S. military training. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel maintains an arsenal of heavy machine guns, drones, and grenades. In addition to regular massacres of Mexican civilians, the cartel is responsible for downing a Mexican military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and the grenade bombing of a U.S. embassy. Mexican cartels are not common criminals with common arsenals. They are now highly trained, capable fighting forces designed to square off with Mexico’s U.S.-backed military and win.

The second and more compelling detente argument is that the presence of U.S. military assets in Mexico would violate Mexican sovereignty and damage trade relations. On this, they are partially correct. President López Obrador has made his position exceedingly clear in meetings with U.S. officials: Any militarization will be protested. Rather than sulk, however, American policymakers should recognize a unique opportunity to engage in realpolitik. President López Obrador was famously elected on a reform platform of “hugs, not bullets” (“Abrazos, no balazos”). A security pullback soon followed, along with a sharp increase in cartel violence. He went as far as meeting with El Chapo’s mother and embracing her on Mexican national television, sending a message of total surrender to the nation’s criminals.

If any Mexican president is to be humiliated by U.S. military intervention, it should be this one. López Obrador is a committed socialist who pursues close diplomatic relationships with Cuba’s communist regime and Venezuela’s Chavista regime. Earlier this year, he received Cuban dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel and lauded Cuba as “an example of resistance” to the U.S. He has also recently deepened Mexico’s economic ties to Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s autocratic leader who is wanted for the trafficking of cocaine. In 2019, the U.S. accounted for 77.5 percent of Mexico’s exports and Mexico only accounted for 14.3 percent of American exports. The socialist president lacks the political capital or leverage to protect the cartels from American wrath, presenting the U.S. with an opportunity to decapitate major cartels with minimal martial cost and potentially political benefits. Given the circumstances, the United States has no incentive to respect the will of the Mexican president.

The U.S. has successfully intervened in narcoterrorism before, dismantling Colombia’s behemoth drug empires in the 1990s. Joint Special Operations Command placed the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s Seal Team 6 alongside Colombian special forces in an effort to bring down the Medellín Cartel. With the assistance of the military’s Centra Spike surveillance team, Pablo Escobar was killed in a rooftop shootout with JSOC-trained Colombian forces and American Drug Enforcement Agency agents in 1993. Escobar’s death ended an era of narcoterror bombings responsible for the deaths of thousands and was quickly followed by the collapse of the rival Cali Cartel, marking the end of Colombia’s reign atop the trafficking infrastructure. Cartel power shifted north to Mexico, where similar pressures have never been applied for fear of diplomatic discomfort. The Colombian operations provide precedent and institutional knowledge for the prudent pursuit of today’s narcoterrorists.

The final and most common objection to FTO designation from the political right involves the potential impact on immigration enforcement. Some immigration hardliners believe that designation could allow illegal immigrants to seek and qualify for asylum, citing narcoterrorism in their legal claims. It is more likely the designation would have the opposite effect. 

The law bars entry to the U.S. if an alien has either engaged in terrorist activity or is likely to engage in terrorist activity after entry. As a result of cartel control of the U.S. border, 99 percent of illegal immigrants pay large sums of money to human smuggling organizations for guidance into American territory. Immigrants who refuse cartel guidance are routinely tortured, ransomed, or killed in retaliation. FTO designation would allow U.S. prosecutors discretion to charge illegal immigrants with hardened criminal records with material support of terrorism, drastically increasing sentence lengths and deterrence. 

Of course, U.S. prosecutors should not charge harmless immigrants with such a serious offense. The U.S. could not morally justify such a draconian policy. The prosecution of coyotes and other known criminals as terrorists, however, would immediatly fix broken sentencing guidelines that allow for short periods of incarceration and quick deportations for many of the most depraved criminals in the region. Rather than deporting criminals several times over only for them to reenter the country, often just days later, the U.S. could incarcerate offenders for appropriate amounts of time. 

The designation would also allow for the aggressive prosecution of U.S. residents who often pay cartel smuggling fees on behalf of family members or potential employees. The designation, paired with prudent prosecution, would effectively cripple the human smuggling industry along the U.S. border and severely degrade the drug trafficking industry. 

The U.S. is facing an undeniable crisis, and Mexico is unable to effectively confront narcoterrorist organizations that rake in the equivalent annual revenue of Dow Chemical. For decades, policymakers have sent police to fight a war. The resulting catastrophe of political instablity, murder, and drug addiction has wrought an intolerable cost on the citizens of both Mexico and the United States. In designating drug cartels Foreign Terrorist Organizations, U.S. policymakers wouldn’t pursue a radical path. They would merely codify what the victims of this ceaseless crisis already know to be true. It’s time for the U.S. to engage with the horrors it faces at home with the same vigor it engages with horrors abroad. Fighting a war with one hand tied behind your back is no way to win, and it’s past time the American people win victory in the war on drugs.