What Would It Mean If The US Designated Mexican Drug Cartels As Terrorist Organizations?

The powerful Mexican drug cartel responsible for the kidnapping and death of four US citizens could be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US.

In a March hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the department is considering designating Mexican drug cartels, which could include the Gulf Cartel, the cartel responsible for the attack. In recent years, the designation of foreign terrorist (FTO) has sparked interest as a tool to use against the cartel.


Why is it being thought about?

According to Javed Ali, associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the killing of two American citizens crossed a “red line.”

Mexican drug cartels also traffic fentanyl, which is to blame for an increase in opioid deaths in the United States — over 70,000 Americans died of synthetic opioid overdoses in 2021, the majority of which were caused by fentanyl imported from Mexico. The DEA seized enough fentanyl to kill every American last year, including more than 50 million fentanyl-laced pills and over 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder, the vast majority of which was seized at the southern border.

Ali thinks now is the right time to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations, arguing that the U.S. is not currently using “all the tools we have” to counter them.

Ali believes that the time has come to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations, arguing that the United States is not currently using “all of the tools we have” to combat them.

What constitutes a Foreign Terrorist Organization?

A group or network must meet three criteria to be designated as an FTO:

  • Must be based in another country
  • Participates in terrorist activity
  • Terrorist activity endangers US citizens or national security.

What is the total number of Foreign Terrorist Organizations?

The U.s. Government has designated over 30 groups, but none of them operate solely as drug cartels.

What effect would renaming a group an FTO have?


An FTO designation opens up the possibility of additional foreign sanctions and a material support charge, making it much easier to indict someone on lesser charges if they are affiliated with the terrorist organization.

“It definitely stigmatizes them,” Ali said. “The last thing a Mexican drug cartel wants is to be labeled a terrorist organization by the United States. That is not good for business.”

Is Congress involved in classifying a group as an FTO?

The designation is made by the secretary of state, in consultation with the attorney general and the treasury secretary. The designation is then sent to Congress for review, and if no objections are raised within seven days, it is published in the Federal Register, making it official.

Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, has introduced legislation asking Blinken to designate several cartels as FTOs: the Gulf Cartel, Cartel Del Noreste, Cartel de Sinaloa, and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. In February, 21 Republican attorneys general urged President Joe Biden and Blinken to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).

What effect would the designation have on drug cartels?

It won’t stop the cartels, but it will get their attention — and the attention of anyone working with them, according to Ali. Because of the material support charge available to the US after an FTO designation, charges for even minor offenses, such as giving money to the cartel, would be far more severe. Donating to a foreign terrorist organization is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The official designation of Mexican drug cartels as terrorists emphasizes the national security threat they pose and confers authorizations that the US hopes will have a chilling effect.

What are the disadvantages of being designated as an FTO?

However, there are some drawbacks to making the designation. It could have a negative impact on US-Mexico relations.

“In terms of all the policing capabilities we have to deal with drug trafficking organizations, particularly in the United States,” says Pamela Starr, an international relations professor at the University of Southern California. “What it would do, however, is undermine bilateral cooperation with Mexico, severely limiting our ability to deal with the challenges in Mexico.”

Furthermore, the FTO designation may harm Mexico’s appeal as a tourist destination by contributing to the perception that it is less safe.


Starr also warns that the designation could further radicalize drug cartels. “My real concern is that if you treat organized crime like a terrorist organization, they might start using terrorist tactics,” Starr said.

According to Ali, the cartel may increase its targeting of US citizens in the worst-case scenario.

However, Ali believes that the FTO designation for Mexican drug cartels is worthwhile. “This level of activity has a direct impact on our national security, owing to the flow of drugs into the United States rather than the targeting of Americans in Mexico. However, it does provide you with another tool. Why not use it when the status quo appears to be failing?”



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