A Terrorist Designation for Cartels Is a Bad Idea

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Trump threatened to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups this week:

President Trump said in an interview posted online Tuesday that he planned to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations, owing to what he said was the high number of Americans killed by their activities.

The comments, which were made in an interview with the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and posted to his personal website, represent a shift in United States policy that the Mexican foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, told reporters on Monday he did not believe would happen.

Designating drug cartels as terrorists is both unnecessary and potentially quite dangerous. For one thing, it continues a bad habit of defining every problem as terrorism, and that in turn could lead to further militarization of an already failed drug war. The U.S. does not need to designate these groups to combat narcotrafficking, and designating them as terrorists would likely lead to merging the worst of the drug war with the worst of the “war on terror.” It potentially opens the door to military intervention in a neighboring country that could result in disastrous consequences for people living on both sides of the border. Designating the cartels would not be welcomed by our neighbors, who would understandably see it as a prelude to interfering in their internal affairs.

The news has alarmed the Mexican government, which fears the possible consequences that such a designation might have:

Mexico’s government expressed alarm Tuesday after President Trump said he was planning to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations, a move that officials here fear could complicate security cooperation and trade between the neighbors.

“Mexico will never accept any action that violates our national sovereignty,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted. “We will act firmly. I have sent our position to the US as well as our resolution on combating transnational organized crime.”

Designating the cartels as terrorist organizations is more likely to impede U.S.-Mexican cooperation. This is another case where heavy-handed hawkish posturing will cause significant harm and undermine the very effort it is supposed to be helping. This idea has been considered before, but it has always been rejected because the costs would far exceed the benefits:

Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to Washington, said that the US government could go so far as limiting cooperation with a country that is home to designated terrorist groups, reducing imports or refusing to vote for loans for that nation from multilateral organizations.

Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had considered designating Mexican drug lords or cartels as terrorists, he said in a telephone interview. “When they realized the economic and trade implications it would have on U.S.-Mexican ties, they backed down.”

A terrorist designation could also disrupt the bilateral cooperation in fighting organized crime built up over years, Sarukhan said.

It would be absurd to jeopardize cooperation with the Mexican government against these cartels for the sake of slapping a terrorist label on them.

Trump has floated this option before, and it is still a bad idea. As Andres Oppenheimer pointed out when this came up in March, designating cartels would divert resources away from genuine counter-terrorism work. Besides, the cartels don’t really fit the definition of terrorist organizations needed for the designation. There may occasionally be some overlap in tactics between criminal organizations and terrorist groups, but they are not the same thing and shouldn’t be treated as if they are. Brian Phillips explained earlier this year that the sanctions that come with the FTO designation would be redundant in this case:

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.”

It gains the US nothing in practice. It is likely to harm U.S.-Mexican relations. It creates additional obstacles for the Mexican government in combating these groups, and it potentially invites more reckless interventionism in the future.

The Trump administration has already been far too reckless in its use of designations of state sponsors of terrorism and terrorist organizations. They have made a habit of throwing these designations around to score points and to pander to domestic supporters without thinking through the implications. This would be another example of that. Not every criminal organization is a terrorist organization, and not every security problem has to be viewed through the lens of counter-terrorism. Designating the cartels would create many more problems than it solves, and it would sour our relationship with Mexico for no good reason. If Trump does this, he will be making a serious mistake.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.