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Updated: Do Mexican Cartels Qualify as Terrorist Organizations?

A Texas congressman is seeking to designate seven of the top Mexican cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations." Critics of the proposal fear such a designation could harm Mexico’s ability to wage its own fight against the cartels.

Congressman Michael McCaul at the Texas Capitol on Feb. 23, 2011.

A Texas congressman is seeking to designate seven of the top Mexican cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations,” a move he says would give law enforcement in the U.S. enhanced tools to combat the cartels.

Critics of the proposal, by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, fear such a designation could harm Mexico’s ability to wage its own fight against the cartels — and damage the U.S.'s relationship with its southern neighbor.

McCaul’s legislation, HR 1270, targets the Arellano Félix Organization, Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana, and the Beltran Leyva, Sinaloa, Juárez and Gulf cartels.

It would permit the government to freeze funds tied to the organizations and qualifies persons found guilty of aiding the cartels for 15 additional years of prison time. A life sentence is possible if the aid — including providing, among other things, identification documents, lodging, training, weapons and transportation — leads to the death of an individual.

“The definition under federal law of terrorism says ‘to intimidate a civilian population or a government by assassination or kidnappings.’ To me the cartels fall squarely into that definition,” says McCaul, a former chief of counter terrorism and national security in the U.S. attorney’s office. “I am concerned that Mexico is losing this war against the drug cartels and so are we.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, fears that it could further complicate Mexican President Felipe Calderón's current battle against crime.

“I think this will damage our relationship with our partner Calderón, who has risked so much to fight the drug cartels," Cuellar says. "And I think this will only strengthen his political opposition. He doesn’t work in a vacuum."

McCaul’s legislation has gained a nod of support from U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso. A former Border Patrol sector chief and previous chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Reyes represents the district directly across Ciudad Juárez, where drug violence has claimed more than 8,100 lives since 2008.

“[Cartels] frequently engage in brutal acts of narco-terrorism to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law, and to incite fear among the people and law enforcement," says Vincent Perez, a spokesman for Reyes. "Such a designation would provide additional tools to help combat drug cartels and the threat they pose to the security of the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America."

But convincing the Mexican government to embrace the initiative may prove to be an uphill battle, analysts say.

“There is no question that [the proposal] is extremely upsetting to the Mexican government and they have been pretty vocal in rejecting the notion,” says Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “There it’s organized crime, it’s vicious. But they are not ideologically motivated and the Mexican government is trying to make a strong distinction between those things.”

Cuellar says the legislation is unnecessary because a current law, the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act — signed by President Bill Clinton in 1999 — already allows prosecutors here to take action against the cartels. The act freezes assets in the U.S. of designated foreign drug traffickers. McCaul calls that argument a “fallacy.”

“It only allows [the government] to take care of the head of the cartel rather than the body," McCaul says. "As we’ve seen time and time again, you can take out the head and just like a hydra, it will grow another."

He and Cuellar plan to reach out to Calderón and Arturo Sarukhán, Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. McCaul says he will try then to soothe fears Mexicans have about his proposal and convince them it is intended to help.

Still, he says, the time for diplomatic niceties has passed.

“The relationship is important, but that’s not all of it. Let’s not put that above good policy,” he says. “We have to have an honest discussion about what is happening down there. Thirty-five thousand people have died at the hands of the drug cartels since this war began. Every day you are hearing about bodies being uncovered and decapitations.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, says taking action should be a priority over applying labels to the cartels.

“I think it’s more important what we do about it instead of what we call them,” Cornyn says.

That action, he says, should include fulfilling the government’s commitment under the Merida Initiative, the $1.4 billion aid package initiated by then-President George W. Bush and signed into law in 2008.

“That seems to be bottle-necked," Cornyn says. "The equipment and other resources that Congress has already approved haven’t flowed through to the Mexican government the way I would have hoped or expected."

McCaul says the Merida Initiative is far from sufficient.

“We need to look beyond Merida now to a new strategy to assist Mexico, and I think this bill is a part of that strategy,” he says. “I think the other peace to it is assisting them from an intelligence and military operation as well.”

When asked if his resolution was one step short of calling for a U.S. military presence in Mexico, McCaul responds that the issue is not that simple. Mexico must still be respected as a sovereign nation, he says.

“I think privately [the Mexicans] would welcome our assistance. We have far greater capabilities, but politically they are in a bit of a box,” he says. “I don’t think the political will is there in this administration or in Mexico, I think, because of the sovereignty issues.”


Editor's note: After the story was first published, Congressman McCaul's staff clarified that the enhanced penalties include a possible life sentence for guilty parties, not a death sentence as the Congressman originally noted in a press release. This story and Mr. McCaul's website have been updated with the correct information.

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Demographics Immigration Border Henry Cuellar John Cornyn Michael McCaul