After the recent massacre of nine Mormon-affiliated U.S. citizens in Mexico—three women and six children—President Donald Trump publicly vowed to slap an official designation of Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) on that nation’s cartels.
Did he mean it? Or was he just seeking to rally his base ahead of next year’s elections? Is this something that Trump will follow through on? Bloomberg News reports he is scheduled to meet Friday with top advisers to decide whether to go ahead with the plan. Attorney General William Barr is in Mexico City on Thursday.
Superficially, this looks like a tough policy, but it’s a singularly bad idea.
Such a move would, in theory, unleash the full fury of U.S. might against the narcos. From sanctions to drone strikes to military intervention, all options would be on the table. It might also allow Trump to reallocate more funds for his beloved border wall. But the consequences would range from complicated and unpredictable to perfectly disastrous.
One is reminded of the venerable 1988 thriller Die Hard, whose villain sets up a “terrorist” incident to pull off a huge heist. “After all your posturing, all your speeches,” one of the victims exclaims, “You’re nothing but a common thief!” To which the villain replies: “I am an exceptional thief...”
And there you have it. Mexico’s cartels are, in fact, exceptional criminal organizations. Hyper-violent, well-funded, with hemispheric reach. And, like the fictional character in Die Hard, they’ve copied certain tricks straight from the latest playbooks of real terrorists, including ISIS-style beheadings and dismemberments, drone warfare, and social-media messaging.
But, again, they use these tactics as means to a very different end.
“Terrorists have a political goal,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope tells The Daily Beast. “Drug traffickers are just out to make money.”
The nine Mormon victims—all members of the LeBaron and Langford families that have lived in northern Mexico for generations and also have Mexican citizenship—allegedly were killed when a crime group called La Línea (The Line) mistook their convoy of SUVs for a rival band and opened fire. Among the dead were eight-month-old twins. Photographs of the mothers and children whose lives were lost were heartbreaking. The tragedy drew widespread attention on both sides of the border and, indeed, around the world.
There are other theories about who might have been responsible and why, including a bitter and violent dispute over water rights, but Mexico’s federal attorney general claims the leader of La Línea was arrested last Monday, and that others who allegedly participated in the shooting are also in custody. Witnesses and family of the detained men insist they are being “scapegoated” by corrupt officers under pressure to resolve the case. Meanwhile, the FBI and Mexican authorities continue their hunt for additional suspects.
The grieving families also have been active, openly petitioning Trump’s White House to label the cartels as terrorists. After claiming there are about 35 percent more murders committed per year in Mexico than by all designated terrorist organizations combined, the petition said that because of the cartels’ “seemingly unlimited resources, it has proven almost impossible to stop them. Their unbridled acts of violence and murder have overrun our borders and created an international crisis.”
But the hammer really dropped when the petition declared: “They seek political power in order to create a narco-state in Mexico,” and “They are terrorists, and it’s time to acknowledge it!”
Shortly after the women and children were killed, Trump had tweeted that it was time to declare “war” on the cartels and to “wipe them from the face of the earth.”
Then, on Nov. 24, the same day the Mormon families filed their petition, Trump went on the air to tell conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly that the cartels “will be designated” as terrorists, and that “we are well into that process.”
Initially this wasn’t big news in the United States, where Trump’s supporters may accept his pronouncements as gospel, his detractors may ignore him, and the news cycle moves on so fast that few among the general public can keep track. But Trump has continued to double down, and the meetings he has scheduled for Friday could be key.
Among interested parties, drug-war hawks in the U.S. are predictably thrilled by Trump’s rhetoric. But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has declared he will not allow “foreign intervention” on Mexican soil—this, even as his Cabinet members scramble to set meetings with their counterparts in Washington.
Many ordinary Mexicans, for their part, have firmly rejected the designation, and some have kicked off a social-media campaign against the LeBaron family with hashtags like #FueraLeBaróndeMéxico [LeBaronsOutOfMexico] and #LeBarónTraidoresDeLaPatria [LeBaronsTraitorsToThe Homeland].
Alejandro Hope, who is the director of a security think tank called MC2 and a syndicated newspaper columnist in Mexico, said some of the “terrorist” narrative embraced by Trump stems from long-discredited disinformation still propagated by his supporters.
“There are many different instances of fake news about Mexican [cartels] working hand in hand with, say, ISIS or al Qaeda. All those theories have been debunked, but it’s a common thread among many far-right organizations,” Hope said.
Such rhetoric serves a larger agenda, Hope noted, which is to “re-enforce the narrative that Mexico is a failed state, that the border is a source of danger for the U.S., that terrorism and drug trafficking are twin phenomena. Those have been tropes of the far-right swamp in the U.S. for a long time.”
Other U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, rejected previous attempts to label crime groups as terrorists. And while there is a substantial body of literature showing that terror organizations engage in criminal activities to fund themselves, there is little indication that criminal organizations give a damn about the kinds of objectives dear to terrorists.
Mexican crime groups are not at all interested in creating social or political change. Unlike the so-called Islamic State, for example, the cartels don’t care about setting up schools, enforcing fundamentalist religious doctrines, or establishing cohesive government rule, and they have no interest in cooperating with political terrorists precisely because of the kind of heat that would bring down on them. Indeed, declaring the cartels to be terrorists could serve as an incentive for them to cooperate with jihadis rather than a deterrent. They’d have nothing to lose.
The U.S. law that applies to the designated Foreign Terrorist Organization list says a group has to have a “political motivation” to be included, Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told The Daily Beast in an email.
“That list doesn’t have any criminal groups on it,” said Isacson. “That’s because the State and Defense departments and the intelligence community already have tools for combating drug traffickers and organized crime. Mixing criminals into the counterterror fight will just dilute the resources and bandwidth available to it, reducing the U.S. government’s ability to be vigilant about terror threats.”
Robert Bunker, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, told The Daily Beast that, due to Trump’s emphasis and influence, “the FTO designation becoming a reality is quite possible,” but that is still “the wrong designation.”
Bunker explained his reasoning this way: “Political insurgents seek parallel governance, whereas criminal insurgents seek impunity in their illicit operations”—and so strive to create “narco-states” to keep authorities out of their affairs.
“The problem,” Bunker explains, “is they are so good at achieving impunity via the application of violence and corruption that they end up becoming the ruling authority in a town or region of a country. They end up with political-insurgent [results] without ever intending to do so.”
Semantics aside, the bigger problem seems to be that designating the cartels as FTOs would yield few or no strategic gains in the fight against Mexico’s narcos, while creating a number of inadvertent consequences.
We know that in part because applying “War on Terror” tactics against the cartels already has backfired, and with deadly results. The “Kingpin Strategy,” which involved taking out alpha targets, grew out of 1990s counterterrorism doctrine. It’s been the go-to option for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican law enforcement for the last two decades. And it’s been a disaster.
“The Kingpin Strategy works very well with terrorist organizations, but not too well with criminal organizations,” Hope said. “When you decapitate a terrorist organization—say you take down Osama bin Laden—then you’re creating a void within the organization and it will often collapse.” There is a political, mystical leadership element at the top. “When you do it with a criminal organization, you’re just opening a business opportunity for someone else.”
In Mexico, the misguided Kingpin approach has led to cartel fragmentation, deadly power struggles, and a deepening spiral of violence that will make 2019 the most violent year of the drug war yet.
“That is just one instance where using the counterterrorist tool box for criminal organizations doesn’t work,” Hope said.
Strategic studies professor Bunker agrees with Hope’s toolbox analogy: “We can’t use the ‘FTO hammer’ reserved for terrorists for the Mexican cartels,” he said.
Jihadis who see themselves as “holy warriors” in a strict hierarchy can be “seriously degraded by drone strikes and other methods.” Mexican cartels, on the other hand, don’t rely on dogma or entrenched leaders, but instead are “illicit-economy driven,” Bunker explains.
“When we wipe out the upper echelons of the cartels… a new cadre of criminals advances to fill their ranks or form new organizations. Mexico on its own—or even with [U.S.] assistance—can’t ‘kill its way’ through the national-security crisis that it is facing,” Bunker said.
Isacson at WOLA noted such a move could be an affront to Mexican sovereignty that damages international relations, perhaps even threatening bilateral security cooperation on the border.
The FTO ruling “would probably mean additional scrutiny of financial transactions, travel, and trade, gumming up the [bilateral] relationship,” he said, adding that: “You can’t ever rule out a scenario like, ‘President Lopez Obrador, we have the coordinates for where El Mencho is right now. We’re sending a drone whether you like it or not.’"
In addition to the risk of increased violence without end, terror-listing Mexican crime groups could also have unintended consequences for peripheral players on the edges of the drug war.
Banks that launder money for the cartels, gun-store owners in the U.S. who sell weapons that wind up in the hands of traffickers, even small-scale illegal dealers and growers could all be caught up in the FTO net. Under current U.S. law, charges of providing “material support” to terrorist groups almost always come with stiff prison sentences.
On the one hand, the already over-criminalized over-imprisoned minorities and people on the margins of society could find themselves facing massive sentences as “material supporters of terrorism.” That probably is not of much concern to Trump or his supporters. But, on the other hand, security expert Hope points out the bulk of the cartels’ weapons come from more than 800 gun shops found on the U.S. side of the border.
“That is another major issue,” Hope said. “The country providing material assistance to these ‘terrorist organizations’ would be the U.S. itself.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the suggestion for terror-listing Mexican crime groups also appears to be deeply unpopular with the cartels themselves.
“If the U.S. sends troops to Mexico, who will they hunt for?” asked a source from a cartel in the same region where the LeBaron massacre occurred, who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
“Narcos don’t wear uniforms,” he said. “Everyone in Mexico knows someone that works for the cartel. It’s the store owner. The farmer. The rancher. Everyone is connected. They live in the mountains and hide in town in their homes. To send troops from the U.S.… would accomplish nothing.”