By Jonathan Coleman, Staff Writer

In spite of public health crises, economic uncertainty, and domestic unrest, transnational criminal organizations continue to commit violence, traffic dangerous narcotics, and undermine lawful authority.  According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexican cartels pose the greatest criminal drug threat to the U.S. homeland. In furtherance of conventional criminal ventures like drug trafficking, extortion, and bribery, Mexican cartels employ terrorist tactics including car bombs, political assassinations, and public executions to advance their interests. In the words of a senior U.S. official, hybrid organizations who seek criminal ends through terrorist means “are meaner and uglier than anything law enforcement or militaries have ever faced.” To achieve the objectives of dismantling violent criminal syndicates and protecting the American people, policymakers must devise a strategy which contends with the terror-crime nexus and leverages U.S. competitive advantages. 

In November, 2019, President Donald Trump voiced his intention to designate major Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). Foreign terrorist designation is a legal mechanism, overseen by the U.S. State Department, used to freeze assets, impose travel restrictions, and prosecute members of designated organizations.  The United States currently applies the FTO label to more than sixty terrorist entities, including groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Unfortunately, labeling Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations belies an abdication of strategic prudence in favor of political posturing. The FTO designation is a useful tool to combat certain non-state actors, but it is unsuitable in the battle against Mexican drug cartels because it could severely rupture the entirety of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation, while accruing few substantive benefits for law enforcement officials engaged in the fight. Rising violence in Mexico and the related opioid epidemic in the United States indicate that the government needs a new strategy to combat violent cartels; terrorist designation is not the answer. 

Scope and Responsibility

As the number one drug consuming nation in the world and as Mexico’s northern neighbor, the United States is inextricably linked to Mexico’s ongoing struggle against organized crime. Mexico’s vast yet increasingly fragmented criminal landscape consists of nine major cartels working in tandem with over 40 recognized criminal gangs. As a result of failed government actions, cartel rivalries, and a wealth of illegal revenue-generating opportunities, organized crime in Mexico has devolved into an anarchic mess of shifting alliances, violent succession struggles, and a proliferation of newer and more brutal criminal factions.

The United States has a vested interest in promoting a free and prosperous Mexico. In light of the U.S.-China trade war, Mexico has become the number one trading partner of the United States, and there is cross-border collaboration on numerous fronts including migration, the environment, intelligence-sharing, and law enforcement. A further deterioration of Mexican national security could have grave consequences for U.S. interests, especially regarding trade, investment, and citizen security.

In Favor

The case for utilizing FTO designation against Mexican cartels rests on two arguments. The first is that because cartels satisfy the State Department’s three-pronged definition of a terrorist organization, the United States should label them so as a matter of principle. The second is that because Mexican cartel violence is increasing, FTO designation inherently represents the type of bold, tough approach needed to reverse the trends. Both arguments are correct in their essence, yet supporters are misguided in the conclusions drawn from them. Mexican cartels undoubtedly commit acts of terrorism, yet because they are primarily profit-driven entities, the counterterror playbook misidentifes the nature of the threat. While it is clear that the United States should explore a new strategy, FTO designation provides little substantive change from ongoing efforts. According to Jason Blazakis, who once headed the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism (which administers FTO designations), applying the label to drug cartels “…would provide no meaningful benefit, and could do much harm.”

In Opposition

Terrorist designation is the wrong course of action because it would do little to improve operational effectiveness. Under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act, the U.S. government already imposes harsh penalties against cartel members and affiliates. Economically, drug traffickers face the ever constant threat of sanctions and asset forfeitures. Criminally, drug traffickers are subject to extradition and face long sentences in U.S. prisons. The FTO designation would add unnecessary redundancy, and there is little evidence to suggest that it would bring any new advantages.

Furthermore, designation belies a profound misunderstanding of the distinctions between crime and terrorism. Blurring this distinction creates a slippery slope whereby untold numbers of criminal entities could be hit with the terrorist label. If the United States were to define Mexican cartels as terrorists, what would it do with other criminal groups who commit terrorist acts like the Shower Posse in Jamaica or Red Command in Brazil? Where would the government draw the line? It is unwise to confuse the lines between terrorist groups and criminal organizations because it could lead to the distraction and misallocation of limited resources to combat the threats. 

Lastly, FTO designation would have disastrous effects on the vitality of U.S.-Mexico relations. While Mexico welcomes assistance in the fight against organized crime, Mexican officials explicitly reject the efficacy of terrorist designation. Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard views the matter as an infringement of national sovereignty, and Mexico certainly seeks to avoid the perception that violent terrorist groups operate within its borders. Labeling Mexican cartels as terrorists could throw relations into a tailspin, thereby inflicting serious damage on the economic and security interests of both countries. Despite the Trump administration’s fiery rhetoric and tariff threats, the fundamentals of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship remains strong. On security issues in particular, the United States and Mexico enjoy exceptionally close ties. Terrorist designation has the potential to scuttle hard-won progress across the board, prevent future cooperation, and obstruct ongoing efforts to establish the rule of law. 


The United States should not designate Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations because it would accrue no new tactical benefits, it confuses the true nature of the fight, and it would have negative consequences for bilateral relations with Mexico. American author F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” We can recognize that while cartels commit acts of terrorism, applying the terrorist label would not advance the interests of the United States. Terrorism is a tactic, not an identity. 

The best way to achieve meaningful progress against violent Mexican cartels is to implement the kind of long-term, institutional improvements that history illustrates work over time: criminal justice reform, rule of law capacity building, and anti-corruption reforms.  Thankfully, Mexico and the United States, by virtue of the Mérida Initiative, already have an established framework through which to pursue these reforms. The Mérida Initiative bases cooperation on 4 pillars: disrupting organized crime, institutionalizing the rule of law, enhancing border security, and building resilient communities. The United States can take concrete efforts to bolster all 4 pillars by assisting Mexico in its transition to a new, more transparent justice system, supporting Mexico’s most trusted and efficient anti-cartel operators, the Mexican Marines, and facilitating a 21st century intelligence relationship complete with fusion centers and real-time information sharing.  These initiatives do not make for sensationalist headlines, but they are the necessary components of any comprehensive strategy to combat organized crime. 

Jonathan Coleman is a recent graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where he received an M.A. in Security Policy Studies. His research focuses on transnational organized crime and citizen security. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of California at Santa Barbara.