Mexico is experiencing the most violence since the inception of its drug war 14 years ago. Last year alone, the country reported over 31,000 homicides, an all-time high—the impotence of security forces emboldening narco traffickers to stage their attacks in broad daylight . Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has come under fire for failing to curb the bloodshed, with his peace-making approach, “abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs, not bullets”), becoming the subject of widespread derision.
Last November, President Trump declared his intention to address the chaos south of the border by naming the Mexican cartels terror groups. “They will be designated [as terrorists],” Trump said during an interview with Bill O’Reilly. “I have been working on that for the last 90 days.” At the request of López Obrador, Trump indefinitely postponed the designation, but later wrote on Twitter: “All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations. Statutorily we are ready to do so .”
In other words, Trump could at any time revive the terror label and slap it on the cartels—a reality which raises several concerns. Foremost among them, whether these groups are technically terrorist organizations, and further, would it be a good idea to designate them as such?
Even for all their savagery, the short answer is no, to both questions.
Admittedly, the cartels do share certain similarities with terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda. They stage violent attacks, often target civilians, and have de facto control over significant swathes of territory. But U.S. legislation defines terrorism as being “politically motivated,” and unlike the Islamist militants of the Middle East, Mexican drug traffickers are driven by profit, not by a political agenda . Even their politically-tinged activities, such as bribing and assassinating elected officials, are aimed solely at increasing the ease with which they do business.
But even if the cartels don’t neatly fit the official terrorist definition, what would be the practical implications of declaring them to be terror groups? Many argue that there could be some strategic advantages to doing so. Under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Act, the president can use “all necessary and appropriate force” to combat groups posing an imminent terrorist threat, meaning that the executive branch would be within its rights to order drone strikes or special operations against Mexico’s cartels . The terror label would also allow the U.S. to more effectively prosecute extradited cartel members or potentially detain them indefinitely as “enemy combatants” at facilities like Guantanamo Bay .
Opening yet another front in the “War on Terror,” this one just south of the U.S. border, would have unacceptable fallout. The implications for civilian casualties alone are sobering, as counter-terrorism missions tend to be anything but surgical. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes over the course of both the Obama and Trump administrations have killed up to 1,725 innocent civilians (400 of them children) . While similar aerial attacks in Mexico might put the cartels on the defensive, they would also threaten the security of the country’s embattled populace. This is not to mention the thorny task that would confront U.S. officials of first deciding which cartels merit a terrorist designation, and then identifying all of their members without bringing unaffiliated, non-terrorist criminals into the mix.
Needless to say, carrying out unilateral military operations on Mexican soil would do considerable damage to America’s relationship with one of its most important regional partners. López Obrador has insisted that U.S. intervention south of the border would be a violation of Mexican sovereignty, and the Mexican public is universally opposed to the idea of hosting even a limited number of U.S. troops. Analysts also warn that the terrorist label would upend carefully calibrated Mexican-American cooperation on migration, security, and even trade, potentially discouraging financial institutions from investing in the country and thus curbing U.S. imports.
Thankfully, starting a war on “terror” in Mexico is not the only available strategy for winning the country’s drug war. Last year, the New York Times documented a witness-protection program in southern Mexico which cut deals with detained cartel hitmen, granting them clemency in exchange for prosecutable evidence against their bosses . While the program was surprisingly successful, it was underfunded, ultimately collapsing when its director accepted a promotion on the other side of the country. U.S. dollars could give local programs like these the teeth and sustainability necessary to make a long-term difference. Foreign aid for similar programs in Central American countries has been critical to preventing complete lawlessness, and could serve as a model for their neighbor to the north. Though not a silver bullet, investing in effective local security efforts is a compelling alternative to American military involvement in another intractable conflict.
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