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By December 3, 2019June 30th, 2020cartels, Mexico, terrorism, The Weekly

“Hugs, not bullets”  -Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

(During the first 12 months of Felipe Calderon’s presidency, more than 18,000 killings were recorded.  In 2012, the first year of Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration, there were slightly more than 10,000 homicides recorded. During the first 11 months of the Lopez Obrador presidency, the number rose to 33,000.)

“This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!” –US President Donald Trump (Twitter)

If you want to fight a war on drugs, sit down at your own kitchen table and talk to your own children.” -Barry McCaffrey

I’d like to bring clarity to a significant situation that has not been accurately examined by media today. The Trump administration has posited that they are looking at the possibility of designating the Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). 

As many of you know my formal training is in linguistics, so I have an abiding interest in the meanings of words. I have even written some articles entitled, “Words Mean Things.” Words are our conceptual tether to reality. If our words lose their meaning, we cannot stay centered nor can we communicate well with one another.

Designating cartels as FTO’s is a significant move on several levels. It reclassifies cartel activities from criminal actions to acts of war. That may not be all bad. I’d like to demonstrate that when our government uses certain designations, they need to be consistent with current policies across the board. It may or may not be a good idea to designate Mexican cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, but my point in this article is that doing so will require the US State Department to change its definitions of some of its significant terms such as, “terrorist.” Though heinous, most actions of Mexican cartels are not currently considered “terrorist” by definition.

Terrorism is not going away anytime soon. It is the poor man’s nuclear weapon. Terrorism will persist as long as there are disgruntled people in the world. Terrorism will probably last most of our lifetimes. If we do not have consistent use of the definitions we incorporate to define “terrorists,” then the whole of terrorism will become a moving target.

A good example of that reality is in the United Nations (UN). There is not an official definition of terrorism in the UN. Why? Because what many in the West want to call “terrorism” is interpreted by many in the Middle East as “patriotism.” It was not so long ago, when the United States was founded, that many of the actions of the colonialists were considered “terrorists.”

In today’s digest, we will discuss the official definition of terrorism, the meaning of an FTO designation and what may come as a result of this designation.


What does it mean to designate a group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)?

The State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT) is responsible for identifying entities for designation as an FTO. Prior to doing so, the Department is obligated to demonstrate that the entity in question engages in “terrorist activity,” as defined in Section 212 (a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) (8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(3)(B)), or “terrorism,” as defined in Section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (FRAA), Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989 (FRAA) (22 U.S.C. §2656f(d)(2)), or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism. When assessing entities for possible designation, CT looks not only at the actual terrorist attacks carried out by a group but also at whether they have engaged in planning and preparations for possible future acts of terrorism or whether they retain the capability and intent to carry out such acts.

What is terrorism? How is it defined by the State Department? All of Section 212 revolves around the State Department’s definition of terrorist activity.

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).

So there it is. You just read the official explanation of an FTO and a terrorist according to the US State Department’s own hand. The final question can be boiled down to one simple point. Are the Mexican cartel’s actions designed to further their political or social objectives? Or are their actions simply to project their power base in order to make billions of dollars selling drugs?

If we agree that the current definition of terrorism is adequate, then the above question must be answered affirmatively.  What are the political goals of Mexican cartels that would lead one to place their criminal behavior into the category of terrorism? 

The Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are a collection of criminal enterprises. Some, such as the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, Juarez Cartel and Sinaloa Federation have existed for decades. Others, such as Los Gueros, are relative newcomers. Because of shifting alliances and breakaway cells, it is almost impossible to state definitively which cartels are in operation at any one time, and the extent of the crime, corruption, and instability associated with them has been difficult to quantify precisely.

Drugs are just the tip of the iceberg. In the popular U.S. television series, Breaking Bad, which is about a high school teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin, there was an instructive exchange. When the show’s antihero, Walter White, was asked whether he “was in the meth business or the money business,” he replied, “I’m in the empire business.” If this is true of Mexican cartels, then perhaps there is a political agenda at hand. Could this mentality be the smoking gun, linking cartels to terrorism and the designation FTO?

The U.S. Justice Department estimates the cartels’ U.S. drug trade at $43 billion annually. That is the same as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Austria. But the Cartels have diversified their business considerably over the past few years, both to increase their profits and to exclude rivals from new sources of revenue. For example, they are dealing increasingly in pirated intellectual property, like counterfeit software, CDs, and DVDs. The most destructive new “products,” however, are people. The cartels have built a multibillion-dollar business in human trafficking, including the shipment of both illegal immigrants and sex workers.

“What the cartels really specialize in is logistics, very similar to Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart was one of the first retailers to run its own fleet of trucks, providing tailored shipping at a lower cost that in turn gave the company an edge over its competitors. Similarly, Amazon may have started as a bookseller, but it’s dominance, as Fast Company put it, is “now less about what it sells than how it sells,” providing a distribution hub for all sorts of products. Drug-trafficking organizations are using the same philosophy to cut costs, better control distribution, and develop new sources of revenue.”

What are cartels transporting? Drugs, yes, but also people and illicit goods such as weapons, and pirated goods. Human trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers, according to the ILO report from 2014. The following is a breakdown of profits, by sector: $99 billion from commercial sexual exploitation and $34 billion in construction, manufacturing, mining and utilities.

Are the cartels involved in trying to influence United States political ideology through their criminal activities? There is a fine line. The cartels have been careful not to tangle with the FBI or the United States Homeland Security. They have certainly engaged US Border Patrol agents, but they try to steer clear from them as much as possible. They have a very clear understanding of their limitations. They realize that if they were to get into an all-out war with the US federal government, they would lose.

Clearly, the Mexican and US governments are at a turning point. Mexican President  Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his “Hugs, not bullets” strategy for dealing with the cartels is on shaky ground. His plan is to create wealth for the impoverished so that the cartels will not have fertile soil for recruiting its soldiers. So far this year over 33,000 people have died at the hands of the cartels. That is roughly five times more than the number of US soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the ten worst years of the war on terror.

What will the fall-out be from the US State Department declaring Mexican cartels to be Foreign Terrorist organizations?

  • It will increase enormous tension in an already tense relationship with Mexico. Mexico fears a US war similar to its war on terror, where US drones implement self-directed attacks against targets of its own choosing. They also fear armed US soldiers on Mexican soil conducting specialized raids against, once again, self-directed, unauthorized targets.
  • “The impact that a designation would have is significant in a variety of ways.  It heightens public awareness and knowledge of individuals or entities linked to terrorism.”
  • The FTO designation means that an American in an inner-city gang selling street drugs that originated from south of the border could be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws – possibly being given a life sentence. This has the potential to be a huge drain on already strained FBI investigative resources. 
  • Adding the cartels to the FTO list has the potential to blur the lines of terrorism and criminality. If criminally motivated groups are added to the terrorist list, where would the State Department draw the line? 
  • By adding the cartels would State then need to add Brazilian gangs, Chinese groups, and Russian criminal organizations? The office that maintains the list for State’s Counterterrorism Bureau has fewer than fifteen people, who are already overworked and under-financed for their task.
  • Mexico fears that it will cause great strain on its most valuable asset, US Tourism. With the FTO designation, Mexico is afraid that Americans and others will be less likely to come and spend their billions of dollars in Mexican resorts and tourist spots.

There are many people, who have a lot more access than I do to intelligence and resources. It is my desire to raise some of the information to a place where regular people like us can at least look at the situation and better understand the problem.

From my limited perspective, I am not sure what will be by gained by designating each cartel organization, one by one as an FTO. The potential for working with the Mexicans, our next-door neighbor could possibly be diminished. There are several law enforcement tools already at the disposal of the State Department for doing most of what needs to be done. All of the key Mexican drug cartels are already sanctioned under the 1999 Kingpin Act, which imposes severe criminal economic penalties on those who support or are part of these criminal networks. An FTO listing would provide no new tools to the departments of Justice, Treasury, or State.

Is there a precedence for designating cartel organizations as FTOs?  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 the population supported the designation and assistance from the US. The desire for help from the Colombian government alters the similarities significantly.


The USA and Mexico share a 1,954 mile long common border. Practically speaking, Mexico should be our best friend. Secure borders and even better, a strong relationship with the government and people of Mexico is our best homeland security. The United States needs to collaborate with the Mexicans in order to achieve peace along that entire line of demarcation.

We must deal with the cartels. It will be no small feat to overcome their embedded structures. Working together feels like a much better solution than threatening to do it ourselves unilaterally.

We would be remiss not to remind ourselves of the US citizenry culpability. American citizens spend billions of dollars buying illicit and dangerous drugs from these same murderers. A huge bite could be taken out of the cartel’s influence if Americans ceased to buy these drugs. We literally are paying billions of dollars to destroy ourselves. 


America as a nation must do something about its drug consumption problem. The problem is too close to home for any of us to ignore. For the security of this nation, doing nothing is not an option. There are a lot of people advocating for the legalization of drugs, declaring this as the answer. Their theory says that by legalizing and taxing drugs, it will knock the legs out from under the cartel’s powerful influence. Perhaps it would take some of the funds off the top, but remember what I said earlier: the cartels have moved from being a simple drug supplier to a sophisticated logistics organization. They are in the “moving stuff” business; if not drugs, then people, pirated goods and/or ideology.

All nations need to work together to combat these trafficking organizations just as much as they need to combat terrorist organizations. Both are a scourge on the earth. Cartels look and feel a lot like terrorist organizations, but their methods, though similar are distinctly different and require a different set of tools. What is needed is a re-prioritization of the anti-cartel efforts.  

The follow-up.

Typhoon Kammuri slams into Philippines…

Death Toll rises to 21 in North Mexico gun-battle…

The feed-back.

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