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El Chapo Bin Laden? Why Drug Cartels are not Terrorist Organisations

04 Feb 2020
Short Read by Paul Rexton Kan

Drug cartel violence in Mexico took an ominous turn late last year. Mexican authorities captured Oxidio Guzman Lopez, the son of imprisoned Sinaloa drug cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, but were forced to release him after the cartel unleashed a wave of violence in the city. Heavily armed cartel enforcers took soldiers hostage, attacked the living quarters of their family members, torched vehicles and took over roads while prisoners in a nearby penitentiary rioted and escaped. The daylong siege left eight dead and gave a black eye to Mexico’s new president. A few short weeks later, a different drug cartel ambushed an American Mormon family in northern Mexico, killing six children and three women.

The increase in the scope and intensity of the violence in Mexico has led to stronger calls to label drug cartels as foreign terrorist organisations. US President Donald Trump said that he would “absolutely” designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organisations. “You know, designation is not that easy, you have to go through a process, and we are well into that process," Trump said in a November radio interview. President Trump is not alone. Ioan Grillo, a journalist and longtime observer of Mexico’s drug violence agrees that drug cartels have crossed over into terrorism: “[Cartels] kill innocent civilians for broader goals, including pressuring the government and controlling political territory.” Although President Trump ultimately decided against designating Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organisations, 2019 was not the only time that there was momentum for labeling drug trafficking organisations as terrorist groups. In 2011 and 2012, bills were introduced in the US House of Representatives seeking to designate seven Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organisations.

In the face of rising violence and strong political pressure, the labeling of drug cartels seems to be a logical step. However, there are significant differences between drug traffickers and terrorists that cannot be overlooked. A term like “terrorism” creates policy options and strategic choices that are different from those that would be responses to “criminality.” Ignoring these differences and conflating criminal violence with political violence will create policy confusion to the benefit of drug cartels.

At first glance, violent organised crime groups and terrorist organisations share a number of organisational and operational characteristics.

  1. They are involved in illegal activities and frequently need the same supplies;
  2. They exploit excessive violence and the threat of violence;
  3. They commit kidnappings, assassinations and extortion;
  4. They act in secrecy;
  5. They challenge the state and the laws (unless they are state funded);
  6. They have back up leaders and foot soldiers;
  7. They are exceedingly adaptable, open to innovations, and are flexible;
  8. They threaten global security;
  9. Quitting the group can result in deadly consequences for former members.

Despite this similarities, the arguments for designating drug cartels as terrorist groups fail to be convincing because their inability to answer a number of fundamental questions.  The first set of questions surround the origins of cartel violence in Mexico. If cartels are akin to terrorists, what are their grievances and what political or social goals are they fighting to achieve assuaging these grievances?  In short, what is the “rallying cry” for their constituency? The current outbreak of cartel violence is a continuation of the Mexican cartel wars of the 1990s, which were primarily motivated by new trafficking opportunities, the breakdown in the political-criminal nexus, and improved border security. The successes that cartels have had in penetrating the political realm of Mexico or purging local communities of mayors and police through bribery, extortion, and coercive violence have all been to ensure the smooth operation of cartel profit making activities in the illicit drug trade. In these instances, they have not overthrown the state to implement a social or political agenda, but have sought to get the state out of the way.  For example, according to the trial testimony of former Juarez police captain Juan Fierro Mendez, cartels seek to control plazas “to maintain order over the local, state and federal agencies then to have free reign to continue trafficking drugs without any problem.”  Terror groups have constituents that they are trying to sway with their violence while cartels have clients for their products and services that they are attempting to satisfy by circumventing or undermining the state. Unlike terrorists, the cartels in Mexico are not motivated to create a homeland to call their own, substitute their ideology for the existing one, or to achieve any other sort of political goal that is routinely associated with armed groups who instigate social upheaval.

The cartels’ use of sophisticated weaponry, the proficiency of their violence, and their operational prowess against the Mexican police and army cannot be denied. But, equipment and tactics do not exist in isolation. The improved tactics, skills, and weaponry of cartels are not a substitute for a strategic political objective which tactics are intended to serve. Having better weapons does not compensate for a cause. It would be as if J. Edgar Hoover declared Al Capone and his gang to be terrorists because they had machine guns while local police merely had pistols. Indeed, cartels have aimed their violence at political targets. Even violent acts by the cartels and gangs that have been directed at government targets are meant to signal the government to retreat from its confrontational stance; they are to intimidate the government rather than to serve as a political statement. Mexican cartels seek to intimidate the state to protect their economic interests, keep themselves out of jail, and to remove their families from harm’s way.

In fact, like any profit-motivated organisation, Mexican drug cartels have diversified their business portfolios. For example, several cartels have expanded into Mexico’s lucrative avocado industry. They have demanded monthly “protection” fees from farmers and have hijacked truckloads of avocados. They have also used similar tactics against Mexico’s oil industry. All of this, once again, reveals their profit-centric goals. Cartel members are shaking down money-rich industries rather than entering politics as candidates.

The inability to successfully address questions regarding the origins and motivations of drug cartel violence significantly affects the critical questions about how to end such violence in Mexico. What would “winning” look like? Most terrorist groups have goals that are negotiable, because, once again, these goals are generally political in nature. Because the violence in Mexico is not low-intensity conflict, any sort of negotiations with the cartels in Mexico would have distorted contours. The criminal nature of their enterprise would forestall the willingness of the government or cartels to find the common ground needed to begin a “peace process” that would lead to the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of cartel and gang +members. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had suggested the idea of granting pardons and amnesties for cartel leaders and gang members. However, such an approach was seen as unworkable. Even if such an offer were made, a drug cartel would be unlikely to accept any offer if it undermined its ability to make money through illicit activities. Such an offer would be an invitation to go out of business.

Outside of successful peace negotiations, terrorism has ended in a variety of different ways. Insurgent and terror groups have been unable to pass the cause on to the next generation; they have lost popular support; they have transitioned into legitimate political avenues; they have been successfully repressed by the established authority; their leaders have been captured or killed. Many organised crime groups have ended similarly, but they have also been defeated by financial strangulation. Terrorist groups support their armed struggles in a number of ways. For example, states can sponsor them, so can charities, sympathetic communities, and even other armed groups. They have also themselves engaged in organised crime activities. But—because a drug cartel is a profit seeking entity at its core—governments that have focused long-term campaigns directed at a cartel’s finances have often caused it to disintegrate.

The promise of government power in tackling drug cartels also creates the question of what happens to bilateral relations between the US and Mexico should the US at any time in the future designate cartels as terrorist groups. As of now, the Mexican government stands opposed to any terrorist label for criminal groups. US policy makers should refrain from officially designating cartels as foreign terrorist organisations for a number of important reasons. First, doing so could put a strain on relations between the US and Mexico because the Mexican government is vehemently opposed to labeling the cartels as terrorist groups. In fact, Mexico’s Senate majority leader, Ricardo Monreal, called President Trump’s initial desire, “inadmissible.” If the US labeled the cartels as terrorists without an agreement from Mexico, it would represent a step beyond where the Mexican government is willing to go. Second, doing so may raise the profile and prestige of the cartels, giving them more prominence than they merit. Once again, this may create a rift with Mexico. Finally, the cartels are already vulnerable to a vast array of criminal punishments—“anti-terror measures would not have any practical effect against them in terms of US law enforcement.”  Simply put, classifying cartels as terrorist groups would add very little to current counter-cartel efforts.

Labeling drug cartels as terrorist groups would nonetheless have legal implications…for US citizens. The debate over Mexican drug violence often serves to obscure the huge demand for narcotics in the US that drug traffickers are seeking to supply. Once again, drug cartels have customers, not constituents. This begs the question, if drug cartels are officially labeled as terrorists, could American drug users be charged with supporting terrorism whenever they buy a dose? If so, US Federal courts would become paralyzed with the volume of cases that were once municipal offenses, but are suddenly raised to the level of national security crimes.

As seen by the events in latter part of last year, drug violence affects both the U.S and Mexico. Finding the appropriate level and combination of resources, legal tools, and political will to reduce the power of Mexico’s drug cartels is an ongoing process of statecraft between the US and Mexico, and will likely be one for the foreseeable future. Although drug violence and terrorism are different, defeating both will require some shared characteristics—namely, balanced strategies and thoughtful decision-making.  However, confusing drug traffickers with terrorists does little to boost efforts that will reduce criminal violence in Mexico.