In the aftermath of the killing of members of the U.S.-Mexican Mormon family on November 4th, the Trump administration is set to formally designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorists.
The killing, which resulted in the deaths of three women and six children, has sparked renewed interest in the years-long bloody drug war that has engulfed the United States’ southern neighbour. This was preceded by the arrest and subsequent release of Ovidio Guzmán López — son of the former head of the Sinaloa drug cartel Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — following a shootout with Mexican authorities in which the officials were heavily outgunned.
The news about the upcoming designation came up during an interview of the president with conservative media figure Bill O’Reilly, with Trump stating that “They will be designated… I have been working on that for the last 90 days. You know, designation is not that easy, you have to go through a process, and we are well into that process.”
In addition, Trump said that he has told Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that he is prepared to carry out military operations against the cartels inside of Mexico. “I’ve already offered him to let us go in and clean it out and he so far has rejected the offer but at some point something has to be done,” Trump explained.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, however, made it clear that they did not support this pathway, which they view as a violation of Mexican sovereignty. President López Obrador reiterated this position. “Our problems will be solved by Mexicans. We don’t want any interference from any foreign country,” he said. Ebrard is set to meet his U.S. counterpart Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss future cooperation.
A top concern for Mexican officials is to stop the inflow of American weapons into the country. The U.S. is the main source of firearms used by the drug cartels.
The designation could pave the way for increased militarisation of the war on drugs. However, this would most likely require Mexican support, which seems unlikely. It is possible, however, that the U.S. could indeed simply violate Mexican sovereignty in a manner similar to its violation of Pakistani sovereignty during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
On a more practical level, the designation would impose greater penalties on those cooperating with cartels. This could result in longer prison sentences, such as for those purchasing weapons for the cartels. It would also require financial institutions, upon learning of a connection, to block money used by their members or associates.
The drug war has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths per year in Mexico. The murder rate has more than tripled since 2006. Large areas of the country are effectively under cartel control, with assassinations, brutal executions and torturing, as well as kidnappings having become common occurrences.