Mexico’s struggle with its drug cartels is a highly complex issue. While Mexico is willing to cooperate with the US in tackling this issue, it has rejected a recent Trump proposal to designate the Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organisations on the grounds that it posed a threat to Mexican sovereignty and was interventionist.
One could be forgiven for thinking that history repeats itself.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson appointed General John Pershing to lead a punitive expedition into Mexico in pursuit of the Mexican revolutionary leader General Francisco “Pancho” Villa. A few months earlier, Villa’s forces had attacked the camp of the 13th Cavalry Regiment in Columbus, New Mexico, at the height of the Mexican Revolution. The Pershing Punitive Expedition was ultimately unsuccessful and Villa was never captured. The incident was largely forgotten in the US, but in Mexico it was remembered as a violation of Mexican sovereignty.
Fast forward 100 years. On 27 November, in an interview with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, President Trump was asked whether he planned to designate Mexico’s drug cartels as terrorist organisations and use drones against them. Trump responded that he would not comment on what he proposed to do, but that they would be designated as foreign terrorist organisations (FTOs). Trump also said that he had offered to “let us [the US] go in” and “clean out” the cartels, but that his offer had been rejected by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO).
The US State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism has responsibility for the identification of entities to be listed as FTOs. In order to be designated as an FTO, it must be demonstrated that the organisation in question engages in terrorist activities. In addition, it must be a foreign entity; have the capability and intent to engage in terrorism; and threaten the security of United States (US) nationals and/or US defence, foreign relations or economic interests. The current list includes organisations such as Islamic State and Boko Haram. The designation of the cartels as FTOs would be an unprecedented step in the so-called Mexican drug war.
Trump’s statement angered the Mexican government, with AMLO responding that Mexico would cooperate with the US, but rejected intervention. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard posted on Twitter that Mexico would never accept any action that violated its national sovereignty and that he had communicated this position to the US, as well as Mexico’s resolve to combat organised crime. Following discussions in Mexico City on 5 December between US Attorney General William P Barr and the Mexican president, the Trump administration agreed to delay the listing of the drug cartels.
Trump’s November announcement came after a Mormon family of dual US-Mexican nationality were killed in an ambush in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. The issue of Mexico’s drug cartels and the trafficking of illicit drugs into the US is, however, a long-standing and vexed issue in the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Mexican transnational criminal organisations represent the greatest illicit drug threat to the United States. The major cartels which are currently active in the US include the Sinaloa Cartel (based in the northern Mexican state of the same name), the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (based in the city of Guadalajara), the Juarez Cartel (based in the border state of Chihuahua and with an operational area extending into Texas and New Mexico), the Gulf Cartel (based in the north eastern state of Tamaulipas), the Los Zetas Cartel (a break-away group form the Gulf Cartel, which formed as an independent entity in 2010) and the Beltrán-Leyva Organization (which split from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008). Of these, the Sinaloa Cartel has the most extensive operations in the US, although the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has increased its activities over recent years.
In its 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment, the DEA reported that Mexican cartels maintained the “greatest drug trafficking influence in the United States, with continued signs of growth” and that cartel activity in the US was managed by Mexican nationals or US citizens of Mexican origin. The DEA also reported that drug-related deaths in the US had increased from 16,849 to 63,632 in 2016. While these figures include deaths from controlled prescription drugs, from the US perspective illicit drugs and the transnational and domestic criminal organisations which distribute them, constitute a significant threat to public health, law enforcement and national security.
Successive Mexican administrations have struggled with the issue. In 2018, AMLO led the left-of-centre National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) and a coalition of parties to victory in general elections. AMLO came to power on a platform of economic reform and addressing poverty, inequality, corruption, crime, and violence. AMLO has implemented several security-related initiatives, including the establishment of a department dedicated to public security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública y Protección Ciudadana) and the creation of a national guard. Recent events, including the murder of the Mormon family and a botched attempt to arrest a son of the infamous drug lord Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzmán in the state of Sinaloa, reveal the scale of the challenge for AMLO and the Mexican administration. They have also resulted in criticism at home and abroad that his approach is not working and that he is not doing enough to combat the drug cartels and organised crime.
President Trump remains intent on completing the border wall between the US and Mexico. In addition, the US administration has exerted sustained pressure on Mexico to address undocumented migration from Central America and, earlier in the year, made trade threats in connection with that issue. Against this backdrop, the recent move to designate the Mexican cartels as FTOs has placed AMLO and his administration in a difficult position. AMLO has endeavoured to walk a careful path with the Trump administration and to engage in dialogue. This has not gone unnoticed by Trump who, in the 27 November interview with O’Reilly, said that he “[got on] okay with this president” and that he thought AMLO was “a very good man,” despite his “socialist tendencies.”
If Trump decides to resurrect his plan to designate the cartels as terrorist organisations, it will have negative repercussions for the bilateral relationship and will be seen in Mexico – and likely the broader international community – as a violation of Mexico’s sovereignty and interference in the country’s internal affairs. There would also likely be strong opposition to any US military presence in Mexico for the purposes of disrupting the activities of the cartels, even in the unlikely event that the Mexican government agreed to such a course of action. In the words of the prominent Mexican American journalist and commentator Jorge Ramos Ávalos, “Mexico should not agree, under any circumstances, to host United States troops — or those from any other country — in its territory. It’s a matter of principle, sovereignty and history.”
Dr Ruth Adler is a former senior career officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Diplomatic appointments included Ambassador to Ireland (2013-2016) and High Commissioner to Brunei Darussalam (2006-2009), with earlier postings as Counsellor/Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy, Mexico City (1998-2000), and Second Secretary, Australian Embassy, Manila (1991-1994).
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.