Without providing any evidence, he boldly proclaimed in early January, “We have terrorists coming through the southern border because they find that’s probably the easiest place to come through. They drive right in and make a left.” His press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was more than willing to invent scary statistics to back up Trump’s wild claims: “We know that roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.” These type of frightening, over-the-top assertions convinced no one, except perhaps those who only watch Fox News.
But now, President Trump has finally found a way to make the terrorist threat south of the border suddenly real: He wants to label Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. At the stroke of a pen, Mexico could instantly rise to the top of the list of terrorist threats facing the nation. Mexican traffickers would join a list of “foreign terrorist organizations” that includes the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. And the threat is not in faraway lands such as Afghanistan and Syria but right next door. In an interview with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump said Mexican trafficking groups “will be designated” as terrorist groups because “we are losing 100,000 people a year to what is happening and what is coming through Mexico.” Trump noted that his administration had been in the process of formalizing the terrorist designation for the previous 90 days. Among other things, a designated foreign terrorist organization can be the target of special sanctions, including freezing assets, and makes it illegal to knowingly offer support.
Not surprisingly, Mexican officials have reacted with alarm to the possibility that their country will soon have a dramatically elevated security threat status, and the government has warned that any violations of its national sovereignty will not be acceptable. These worries are not unfounded, not only because of Mexico’s deep historical sensitivities and grievances —losing more than a third of its territory in the Mexican-American War — but because countries designated as a serious terrorist concern in the post-9/11 era have invariably been the targets of major U.S. interventions, including outright invasion and occupation.
Trump has made it clear that he thinks U.S. troops are needed in Mexico. After Mexican drug traffickers ambushed and massacred nine members of a Mormon family — all dual U.S.-Mexican citizens — in Sonora, Mexico, in early November, Trump turned to Twitter to offer American boots on the ground.
“The cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” he wrote to his Mexican counterpart, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “This is the time to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.” The Mexican government’s response was to say no thanks. But it is not hard to imagine why Mexico might fear that the United States may not always ask for permission if traffickers are now designated as terrorists. Entrenched corruption, which has long plagued Mexican institutions, could plausibly even be recast by Washington as a form of “harboring terrorists.”
The terrorist label has always been malleable, fuzzy and politicized — so much so that the United Nations has yet to agree on a formal definition — but Trump, as is his style, is taking it to the next level with this latest move.
Mexico, of course, could quickly counter with its own label-stretching moves: after all, with most of the firearms seized from Mexico’s cartels originating in the United States, why not define American gun manufacturers and the hundreds of gun shops near the border as suppliers of terrorists? Loose U.S. gun laws, and a lack of political will and capacity to stem the flood of smuggled guns south, are clearly Mexico’s top external security threat. Or why not go even further and designate the United States as the top funder of terrorism, given that U.S. drug consumption is what finances the traffickers? Trump is deafeningly silent about these forms of U.S. complicity in the escalating drug violence in Mexico, with the death toll reaching record levels in 2019.
U.S.-Mexican relations have often been tumultuous, requiring extra diplomatic care on both sides of the border. But perhaps now more than at any time in recent decades, Mexicans are painfully reminded of their old saying, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”