So why not label them terrorists?
Here are some of the reasons the Mexican government is trying to fight the designation:
It’s a blow to Mexico’s reputation
Yes, there have been horrific instances of Mexican organized-crime figures chopping off heads or dangling bodies from bridges. But the U.S. government has never considered Mexico a nation with terrorist groups.
“The image of a country is important in terms of whether people decide to invest or come and spend money and go to tourist areas,” said Ana María Salazar, a security analyst in Mexico.
If the U.S. State Department designated its crime groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, Mexico could be considered a more risky country in which to do business or take a vacation. That’s a big deal in a nation where tourism generates more than $20 billion a year in revenue and creates millions of jobs.
It could mean more U.S. interference in Mexico’s politics and economy
Mexico already collaborates closely with U.S. efforts to identify and sanction drug traffickers and their allies. The U.S. Treasury maintains a list of Specially Designated Nationals linked to illegal actions such as drug trafficking that includes hundreds of Mexican individuals and companies. American citizens are prohibited from dealing with those on the list.
But adding a terrorism designation could raise the bar higher.
“It implies greater pressure, greater [U.S.] interference, not just in our financial system but in our political and logistical systems,” said Jorge Lara, a former senior Mexican justice official.
One thing worth noting: Mexican organized-crime groups aren’t isolated bands operating at the margins of society. Their members own legitimate-seeming businesses, exert control over communities and routinely pay off politicians and police. If any contact with organized-crime groups was construed as support for terrorism, many Mexicans — including innocent people — could find themselves punished.
Luis de la Calle, a former senior trade negotiator, noted that many Mexican companies are extorted by organized-crime groups. If the businesses were forced to pay, and were then subject to U.S. anti-terrorism laws, he said, “it would be a bit excessive.”
Mexicans fear U.S. military action
Trump has told Mexican leaders he’s ready to send U.S. troops in to fight the cartels — an offer he repeated this month after the brutal killings of nine members of the LeBaron family, dual U.S.-Mexican citizens in the northern state of Sonora.
“This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth,” he tweeted.
Mexicans are very sensitive about U.S. military operations on their soil. Schoolchildren all learn about the American invasions of their country in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister, said Mexicans’ fears that a terrorist designation could trigger some sort of U.S. military operation are probably exaggerated. If the U.S. government dispatched Special Operations forces to capture a druglord, he said, “they’re going to do it on the basis of a foreign policy decision, not a legalistic pretext” like a terrorism designation, he said. In any case, he said, unilateral military action is unlikely.
But Mexican politicians and commentators worried openly Wednesday about such a possibility.
It could affect trade
Many of Mexico’s top drug-trafficking groups have an extensive presence on the border, to move heroin, cocaine, fentanyl and other narcotics to their principal market, the United States.
If those groups were considered terrorist organizations, the U.S. government might crack down harder on cross-border flows of goods and people.
“It will be an irritant for trade,” said a former Mexican government involved in bilateral affairs who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues.
It’s seen as all about American politics
Many people argue that a terrorist designation wouldn’t resolve the problems contributing to Mexico’s staggering violence — such as weak judicial institutions, poorly trained police and the insatiable demand of the U.S. market for drugs. They see Trump trying to boost his political fortunes, not address the real problems.
“This plays right into the hands of the president, who has another reason now to paint Mexico with a brushstroke of insecurity, as a national security threat,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to Washington.
As the president gears up for his reelection race in 2020, Sarukhan said, focusing on Mexican violence “allows him to continue banging away on his thing of the border wall.”
But some say Trump’s threat could succeed in getting the Mexican government to take more steps to curb the cartels. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been widely criticized at home for lacking a strategy to reduce violence. He has focused on addressing the social causes of organized crime, rather than relying as much on the military.
“It’s going to push Mexico to do something, or at least show they’re doing something, regarding these criminal organizations and the level of violence,” Salazar said. “It’s a wake-up call.”