The events of last Monday were harrowing. Less than 100 miles from the U.S. border, gunmen ambushed three SUVs carrying American citizens. Three women and six children lost their lives, including two eight-month-old twins. A mother and her four children burned alive after a bullet ruptured the gas tank of the SUV they were sitting in. Another died while attempting to shield her two sons, aged eleven and two.
Whether it was as a case of mistaken identity or a targeted hit has yet to be determined. Mexican security minister Alfonso Durazo said the vehicles may have been mistaken as belonging to a rival gang, one fighting for control of the area’s drug trafficking routes. But the massacre was the worst single incident of violence involving U.S. citizens since 2006.
As cartels increasingly resort to insurgent tactics to achieve their ends, they are presenting a genuine danger to both America and Mexico.
2006 is when Mexican military launched its war against drug trafficking organizations. This, simply put, has failed; on October 17, 2019, the Sinaloa Cartel defeated the Mexican military in open battle, and effectively forced the Mexican government to release Ovidio Guzman, son of convicted kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
As cartels increasingly resort to insurgent tactics to achieve their ends, they are presenting a genuine danger to both America and Mexico. President Trump recently remarked that waging war on drug cartels is fair game; the feeling resonated with members of Congress, activist groups, and former law enforcement officials.
The success of such a war hinges on law enforcement being equipped to combat these crime syndicates with every tool available to them, and in recognizing these cartels for what they are: foreign terrorist organizations.
MEXICO BECOMES A DEMOCRACY IN NAME ALONE
A recent report by Contraline revealed that about 58 percent of Mexico have a high level of violent crime. About 23 percent of Mexico is entangled in disputes between criminal organizations and the Mexican authorities. Only 20 percent of Mexico is firmly in government control.
Cartels have freely used their influence and money to bolster political campaigns in support of anti-Americanism.
Last year, Abel Montúfar, a candidate for State Congress in Mexico, was murdered; his murderers have yet to be identified, though his relatives say that they do not doubt that they were criminals supporting a rival candidate. About 136 politicians and political operatives have been assassinated in Mexico since the previous fall in addition to killings, more than 400 other cases of aggression against politicians and political operatives have been reported this fall, including assassination attempts, threats, intimidation, and kidnappings.
Over the past decade, the cartels have co-opted local politics in various states by using violence to effectively handpick slates of candidates. With cooperative officials in key local offices, criminal organizations can protect and grow their illegal enterprises with impunity, freely exercising control over local police forces and securing lucrative government contracts.
In the beginning, gang involvement in Mexico’s political process was hidden, but it has grown into a more shameless and open practice. Cartels impose caps on the number of votes opposing candidates are permitted, which preserves the image of the democratic process on final tallies, but ultimately safeguards their candidate’s victory.
Political corruption doesn’t stop at the border. Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco New Generation, Juarez Cartel, Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, and Beltran-Leyva Organization have been flourishing by bribing judges, police, politicians and other officials. Since the Mexican drug wars began in 2006, about 200 Department of Homeland Security employees and contractors took nearly $15 million in bribe money. The Panama Unit, an anti-drug police unit in Hidalgo, Texas, for instance, became involved in guarding and stealing for drug lords. Cases of drug-related official corruption have emerged in most Texas border counties. Cartels have also developed ways to directly undermine DEA action, jamming and “spoofing” Border Patrol’s surveillance drones, and have using drones to deliver drugs over the border.
Members of these cartels, deeply embedded in their communities, often view themselves as patriots. These cartels have freely used their influence and money to bolster political campaigns in support of anti-Americanism. Moreover, the cartels’ control of numerous Mexican states has allowed it to spread its illegal activities into the U.S., such as drug trafficking and human smuggling. Cartel violence is a threat to American life and liberty.
CARTEL VIOLENCE SPILLS OVER THE BORDER
Advisories released by the U.S. State Department have warned Americans not to set foot in five Mexican states (Sinaloa, Colima, Michoacan, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas); eleven more states are subject to reconsideration. Between 2007 to 2010, 293 Americans were killed by cartels in Mexico; Mexican cartels mounted grenade attacks against the U.S. consulate in Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
As many as 5,700 Americans have been killed in the U.S. by cartel-fueled drug violence.
There are reports that U.S. gangs have intensified ties with Mexican drug cartels. In 2013, Mexican drug cartels sent their top agents to orchestrate crime rings deep inside U.S. territory. Los Zetas, for example, is actively recruiting in U.S. prison and enlisting non-Mexicans into street gangs. (Around that same time, it was discovered that cartels were also hiring U.S. soldiers either as hitmen or advisors).
In a 2013 U.S. National Gang Report, 23 percent of police surveyed said gangs with ties to Mexican organized crime were present in their jurisdiction. Whereas before, Mexican cartels’ relationships with U.S. gangs were limited to drugs. Now, the gangs carry out more sophisticated criminal activities on behalf of cartels, allowing the larger groups to reduce their operational risks in U.S. territory. In return, the gangs receive discounts on the drugs they buy.
In April 2014, sheriffs suspected that Mexican cartels had infiltrated 3,000 U.S. cities. Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, primarily, now flourish in Texas border counties. The local sheriff in Zapata, Texas, told reporters that nearly everyone in the neighborhood was involved in criminal activity and that the zone was a hotspot for drug stash houses.
In North Carolina, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson also reported problems with the Sinaloa cartel. North Carolina saw the arrests of Nine Trey and MS-13 gangsters. Groups like Tango Blast and Texas Syndicate, as well as transnational gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Texas-born prison gang Barrio Azteca, serve as muscle, couriers and local drug vendors for the Mexican groups.
As many as 5,700 Americans have been killed in the U.S. by cartel-fueled drug violence.
TRANSNATIONAL TERROR NETWORKS
It’s not just Americans being recruited; Mexican cartels have become entangled in transnational criminal networks as well. U.S. officials have long known about Hezbollah, a terrorist group based in Beirut, operating in South America’s tri-border area in Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, where the group runs drug and large-scale counterfeiting networks. In recent years, there has been more concern about the group establishing a footprint in Central America.
Mexican cartels have been collaborating with individuals with ties to known terrorist organizations, controlling a significant amount of territory in Mexico.
In 2011, U.S. authorities accused a Lebanese man of selling Colombian cocaine to the Zetas and laundering money on their behalf—all while using the profits to finance Hezbollah. Ayman Joumaa and his partners sold 85 tons of cocaine to the Zetas between 2005-2007, contraband which was later trafficked into the U.S., and laundered some $850 million in their profits for the group, some through the Lebanese Canadian Bank.
About 80 percent of the methamphetamine consumed in the U.S. each year is made with precursor chemicals from China, authorities estimate. It’s no surprise then that authorities in Asian countries have captured several of El Chapo’s operatives in recent years. In June 2011, Malaysian authorities sentenced three Mexicans from Sinaloa to death for operating a methamphetamine laboratory in the city of Johor.
The Sinaloa Cartel, while still led by El Chapo, forged alliances with 14K and Sun Yee On, two Chinese triads operating in Hong Kong, to get precursor chemicals to make highly addictive synthetic drugs. This alliance was discovered by the capture of three suspects, believed to have ties to the Sinaloa Cartel by the Filipino anti-narcotics police forces. Chief Bartolome Tobia reported that “Mexicans, who are already here [in the Philippines], are getting help from Chinese criminal organizations linked to drug trafficking.”
TERRORIST IS AS TERRORIST DOES
The State Department’s legal criteria for designation as a “foreign terrorist group,” under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, is that an entity must be a foreign organization, engage in terrorist activity or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism, and must threaten the security of American nationals or the national security of the United States.
Mexican cartels, through their known collaborations with transnational terror networks and violent seizure of political control over vast amounts of territory in Mexico, pose “the most serious threat the U.S. has faced from organized crime.” These cartels make billions of dollars through their bloody enterprises, trafficking drugs and human beings into the United States. The insurgent-like tactics they use should dispel the notion that Mexican drug cartels are just criminal enterprises—they are foreign terrorist organizations.
This designation is not just semantic; it has actual effects on the range of options available to President Trump to deal with the threat seeping through our Southern borders—to wage war on drug cartels. Recognizing the Mexican Cartels as terrorist organizations would make it unlawful to provide material support or resources to them, and would make it unlawful for members of the designated cartels to enter the United States. Designation would also allow the Treasury Secretary to block all assets possessed or controlled by these cartels.
In a letter circulated to members of Congress this February, Representative Chip Roy of Texas wrote: “[l]aw enforcement needs to have every tool at their disposal to dismantle drug cartels.”
It’s high time we give them these tools by designating Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.