Los Angeles Times

Don’t blur the lines: A Mexican cartel is no ‘terrorist organizati­on’

- By Jason M. Blazakis and Colin P. Clarke

IN A SCENE FROM a 2018 movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” a U.S. president decides to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups because it will provide new tools for U.S. national security to mitigate growing violence.

Designatin­g violent Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizati­ons is an alluring prospect for several reasons. The recent kidnapping and murder of two American citizens by the Gulf Cartel has once again made the issue prominent, including for policymake­rs and members of Congress.

Just as occurred in the film, there are high-ranking U.S. officials who believe that designatin­g the cartels as terrorist groups will solve the twin national security crises of illegal immigratio­n and drug traffickin­g. The most notable is former U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr.

Yet, while designatin­g the cartels as terrorist organizati­ons has obvious emotional appeal, such an action is more likely to backfire than to stave off illegal immigratio­n and drug traffickin­g fueled by instabilit­y emanating south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Designatin­g terrorist organizati­ons is among the most powerful tools the United States wields to combat such groups. It provides the United States with the legal resources necessary to deny individual­s within the group the ability to immigrate into the United States, blocks the groups’ access to the financial system, and makes it possible to prosecute individual­s who provide material support. Some of these measures, such as denying the drug cartels access to the financial system, are already in place and are being weaponized against the most important Mexican drug traffickin­g groups.

We believe the terrorist designatio­n would provide one significan­t source of leverage — expanding the range of individual­s the U.S. government can prosecute for providing material support to any designated drug cartel. But on balance, this would be outweighed by a host of negatives.

To begin with, drug-related violence perpetrate­d by cartels is still inspired by underlying criminal motivation­s. In contrast with private military contractor­s such as the Russianbac­ked Wagner Group, which we’ve both argued to designate as a terrorist organizati­on, the Mexican cartels are criminally motivated. They make money and spend it only to further their criminal bottom line. Put simply, it’s profit, not politics. In contrast, organizati­ons like Wagner are enmeshed in trying to alter the political status quo in Ukraine. This same dynamic is not in play in Mexico.

Next, designatin­g drug cartels as terrorist organizati­ons would dilute the list, conflating crime and terror. This inevitably leads to a slippery slope, especially when one considers the number of drug traffickin­g organizati­ons that would qualify under similar criteria. Adding more terrorist groups to the list could outstrip the ability of the U.S. intelligen­ce community to collect informatio­n on the most pressing foreign-based terrorist threats, the Islamic State group and Al Qaeda. Adding the cartels would mean reallocati­ng resources away from those threats.

Another reason to eschew designatin­g Mexican drug cartels is the need to avoid militarizi­ng the border. This could significan­tly attenuate the flow of trade and economic activity, hurting both the U.S. and Mexico. That’s one reason Mexico has historical­ly expressed concern about such a designatio­n. When the Trump administra­tion stated it was considerin­g a similar action in 2019, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was categorica­l in his staunch opposition. The terrorist designatio­n would, by any standard, heighten U.S.-Mexico tensions, potentiall­y setting back relations with an important country during a crucial time, given the ongoing border crisis.

Lastly, Mexican drug cartels are already deeply entrenched within the United States. Americans are operating on behalf of various cartels in myriad ways, from retail-level drug distributi­on to more complex logistical operation. If the U.S. takes the step to label Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups, the potential militariza­tion that comes with such a designatio­n could have substantia­l spillover and second-order effects on how Americans could be prosecuted. Are teenage drug dealers and gang members in Chicago really on par with hardened Islamic State supporters plotting to attack U.S. citizens? We believe not, even though the scourge of fentanyl and other deadly drugs remains a serious challenge worthy of more resources and policy attention. It is different from terrorism.

At the end of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” the U.S. labeling of the drug cartels as terrorist groups backfired. Countering Mexican drug cartels is too important for the U.S. government to plagiarize a Hollywood script. Instead, policymake­rs should focus on the most effective way to counter the drug cartels’ ability to profit, particular­ly by focusing more on decreasing the demand for and supply of drugs in the U.S.

America’s insatiable craving for drugs is the problem. Let’s develop better domestic policies to treat addiction and give our medical, nonprofit and educationa­l communitie­s the tools they need to crush America’s crippling drug crisis, without confusing the Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmáns of the world with the Osama bin Ladens.

Jason M. Blazakis, a professor of practice at the Middlebury Institute of Internatio­nal Studies, was director of the State Department’s Counterter­rorism Finance and Designatio­ns Office in the Bureau of Counterter­rorism from 2008 to 2018.

Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.

 ?? Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times ?? FIGHTING crime is not the same as fighting terrorism.
Genaro Molina Los Angeles Times FIGHTING crime is not the same as fighting terrorism.

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