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In a radio interview that aired on Nov. 26, U.S. President Donald Trump told former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly that he intends to designate Mexican cartels as international terrorist entities because of their role in human and drug trafficking. The statement was met with widespread condemnation in Mexico, where both the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the public are seriously opposed to the move. Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said in a Nov. 25 interview on the proposal that he didn't expect the United States to follow through on the idea.
The situation in Mexico is quite different from that in Colombia during the early 1990s when Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel were designated as narcoterrorists. Both the Colombian government and population supported the designation and the U.S. assistance. However, the long and complex relationship between the United States and Mexico has left the Mexicans far more sensitive to what they perceive as U.S. infringement on their sovereignty. Many Mexicans viewed Trump's threat to send U.S. troops to Mexico in the wake of the Nov. 4 LeBaron slayings as offensive, patronizing and motivated by his 2020 election ambitions. Any decision to designate the Mexican cartels as international terrorist organizations is seen in much the same light.
The harsh reality is that economics dictate that the flow of contraband across the U.S.-Mexico border — drugs going north and cash and guns flowing south — will never end as long as there is a huge market in the United States for illegal drugs.
From a practical perspective, the U.S. government has long been involved in supporting Mexico's military efforts against the cartels, and it has provided training, equipment, assistance and intelligence. The relationship is particularly close with the Mexican marines, who are involved in most operations targeting high-value cartel figures. The Mexicans have been able to either capture or kill a long list of major cartel figures. Such operations do weaken and fragment the cartels, but they do very little to address the underlying problems — corruption, impunity and a vacuum of authority — that allow them to operate the way they do in Mexico.
The harsh reality is that economics dictate that the flow of contraband across the U.S.-Mexico border — drugs going north and cash and guns flowing south — will never end as long as there is a huge market in the United States for illegal drugs. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the same cartels operate on both sides of the border, but they are far more restrained in the United States. Therefore, if Mexico can make progress in addressing corruption and related problems, it can regain the trust of the public and take steps to constrain the cartels so they behave as they do in the United States. Obviously, given the violent behavior of the cartels, the government of Mexico must continue to use military force against them so it will be able to address these underlying weaknesses. However, force alone will not be able to combat those problems.
Finally, there is a real practical difficulty in designating Mexican cartels as international terrorist organizations. The cartel landscape is far different from what it was 20 years ago, and there are an array of distinct and independent groups. For example, the Gulf cartel has completely imploded and turned into a host of smaller local criminal groups, including Los Zetas, which has splintered into at least a half-dozen competing factions. Merely labeling a few of the larger groups such as the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion and the Sinaloa cartel as terrorist organizations will not be helpful in meaningfully countering all the smaller groups.