It was a cordial affair. Mexican officials advised restraint from their American counterparts. Barr, López Obrador later said, “understands that our constitution mandates that we adhere to the principles of cooperation for development and nonintervention in foreign policy.” Mexican officials were confident that they had convinced him. “He doesn’t personally favor the designation,” a Mexican foreign policy official told me. “He’s more practical.”
On Friday, Trump announced that he would postpone the cartel designation. Inside the López Obrador administration, the decision was met with relief. López Obrador thanked Trump for withdrawing the threat.
But not everyone in Mexico shares the government’s gratitude. For the LeBaron family — who suffered a barbaric attack at the hands of still unidentified assassins in northern Mexico, sparking the current debate on cartels and terrorism — the truce is nothing but a subterfuge. Nine women and children of the Mormon family, with dual Mexican and American citizenship, were killed in the border state of Sonora.
I personally oppose designating cartels terrorist organizations because it would create obstacles to security cooperation. But the LeBaron family deserves our attention. It has suffered unimaginable loss, and both the United States and Mexico should seriously consider its demands — which are the demands of many Mexicans who feel the current government is not implementing effective measures to reduce the rising levels of violence plaguing the country.
“What other definition can you use to describe people who murder so brutally and without any respect for the law, all this with the intention to incite terror?” family spokesman Bryan LeBaron asked after Trump’s announcement of the deferral. “Why is President López Obrador so afraid to follow Mexican law to the letter?”
The LeBaron family had met with López Obrador a few days before Barr. Julián LeBaron, a family member and longtime activist, said that members had told Mexico’s president that the country “had to be humble and accept help.” The call to designate the cartels as terrorists, LeBaron said, was meant as both an urgent plea for assistance and a wake-up call. “We are clearly overwhelmed,” he said. “Narcoterrorists have taken over where we live. Words are not enough.”
For the patriarch of the family, Adrián LeBaron, who has shaken Mexico with the heartfelt account of his grief (he lost his daughter Rhonita and four grandchildren in the Sonora shooting), the agreement between López Obrador and Trump is a step backward.
“López Obrador disappoints me,” LeBaron told me Tuesday. “I would have stood up and applauded if he had taken the step [to designate the cartels as terrorists], but he’d much rather put the onus on Trump. Why can’t he be brave instead?”
LeBaron is convinced that Mexican cartels deserve the terrorist label. “This is very simple to me,” he said. ”Many people have asked me if Mexico is a narcostate. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I live surrounded by fifteen municipalities [in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico] that have been taken over by the narcos. I know that Mexico is corrupt at a very basic level. The country is floating on thousands of corrupt municipalities, much like quicksand made up of blood.”
LeBaron, 58, is on a mission. He uses a striking historical analogy to describe his intentions after the slayings of his daughter and grandchildren. “I am playing the role of Benjamin Franklin when he went to France to ask for support so that the United States could stand up to the boot of the English,” he told me. “Mexico is now under the boot of terrorists and cartels. And we need help.”
The LeBaron family will keep pushing for the formal designation of Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. LeBaron told me that the high-profile arrest this week on drug trafficking charges of former Mexican public safety secretary Genaro García Luna, widely regarded as the architect of former president Felipe Calderon’s war on Mexican cartels, is a sign that the family’s demands for immediate results are working. “Maybe my daughter didn’t die for nothing,” he said. “What I want to do is lay bare all of Mexico’s corruption, violence and impunity. This is proof is that our struggle hasn’t been in vain.”
This week, Adrián and other members of the LeBaron family are to meet with Republican legislators in Washington to make their family’s case for the need to designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. They will insist on its importance as a crucial step in the fight against organized crime in Mexico. The group that assaulted his family on the back roads of Sonora, Adrián LeBaron told me, made a grave mistake.
“They killed the wrong daughter,” he said. “And we will not stop.”