MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s government is expressing alarm at President Trump’s plan to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations, a move that officials here fear could complicate security cooperation and trade between the neighbors.

“Mexico will never accept any action that violates our national sovereignty,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted late Tuesday. “We will act firmly. I have sent our position to the U.S. as well as our resolution on combating transnational organized crime.”

The Foreign Ministry said Ebrard would contact Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to set up an urgent meeting to discuss “this theme of high relevance for the bilateral agenda.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reacted Nov. 27 to President Trump saying he was planning to designate Mexico's drug cartels as terrorist organizations. (Reuters)

Trump told former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in a radio interview broadcast Tuesday that Mexican cartels “will be designated” as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The president noted that he had already told Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that the U.S. military could be dispatched to help the country tackle organized crime.

“I’ve actually offered him to let us go in and clean it out and he so far has rejected the offer,” Trumpe said. “But at some point, [something] has to be done.” He cited the damage done by drugs to American addicts and their families.

The president said his administration had been working on the terrorist designation for the past 90 days. “You have to go through a process, and we’re well into that process,” he said.

Under U.S. law, a violent foreign group or individual who threatens American security can be designated as terrorist in nature and be subject to special sanctions. Any institution dealing with a designated terrorist — such as a bank or government agency — comes under heavy scrutiny and potential punishment.

Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador in Washington, said the U.S. government could go so far as limiting cooperation with a country that is home to designated terrorist groups, reducing imports or refusing to vote for loans for that nation from multilateral organizations.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had considered designating Mexican drug lords or cartels as terrorists, Sarukhan said in a telephone interview. “When they realized the economic and trade implications it would have on U.S.-Mexican ties, they backed down.”

A terrorist designation could also disrupt the bilateral cooperation in fighting organized crime built up over years, Sarukhan said.

López Obrador played down Trump’s comments Wednesday morning, saying he wanted to “send a hug to the American people” for Thanksgiving and avoid a political conflict. “I will only say, ‘Cooperation, yes, interventionism, no,’ ” he said.

But other Mexican politicians roundly denounced Trump’s action. Martí Batres, a senator from López Obrador’s ruling Morena party, warned that it “opened the door to U.S. military intervention in Mexico.”

Mexicans are highly sensitive to any possible American military action in this country, which was invaded twice in the past two centuries by U.S. troops.

Mexico appeared to be caught off-guard by Trump’s announcement. On Monday, Ebrard said Mexico “would never accept” that its criminal groups be designated as terrorists by the U.S. government, because “this invokes a disposition to act in a direct manner.”

“But I think the United States isn’t going to go this route,” he said.

Mexico’s homicide rate is on track to hit record levels this year, with organized-crime groups battling over trafficking routes, extortion rackets, gasoline theft and other activities. The violence received new attention earlier this month, when suspected cartel members gunned down seven dual U.S.-Mexican citizens belonging to the extended LeBaron family who were living in the northern state of Sonora.

Authorities have yet to determine who killed nine members of a Mormon family in Mexico on Nov. 4, or their motive, but the victims' family is demanding justice. (The Washington Post)

López Obrador has argued that Mexican officials have erred over the past decade by deploying the Mexican army to fight organized crime, a policy he says only intensified the violence. He has instead argued for addressing the roots of violence via social programs, an approach he has dubbed abrazos, no balazos” — hugs, not bullets. But polls indicate Mexicans are increasingly unhappy with his government’s inability to curb violence.

López Obrador, a leftist who took office a year ago, has maintained a generally cordial relationship with Trump, despite the U.S. leader’s frequent criticism of Mexico. In June, the Mexican leader agreed to crack down on U.S.-bound migrants from Central America after Trump threatened stiff tariffs.