Mexican Leader Draws Line on Trump Terrorist Plan: ‘Interventionism: No’

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — A border wall. Mass deportations. Punishing tariffs. A halt to foreign aid. An end to a decades-old trade deal.

For years, President Trump has pressured or wielded threats against Mexico, hoping to force a policy change, excite his political base, or both. This week, he did it again, announcing that he planned to designate Mexican drug trafficking groups as terrorist organizations.

Mr. Trump, who made the remarks in an interview with the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, didn’t specify which of the mosaic of criminal groups he intended to slap with the label. But the reaction in Mexico has been swift — and negative — as the nation considered the implications.

Mexican officials have suggested that the terrorist designations could challenge their nation’s sovereignty, and the foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, is seeking high-level talks with Trump administration officials about the matter.

Some analysts raised the specter of armed drone strikes on Mexican soil, or other covert American actions against drug traffickers, potentially without the knowledge or consent of the Mexican government. Speaking on Wednesday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador mostly demurred on the subject, but hinted that he did not welcome the prospect of secret American operations on Mexican territory.

“Cooperation: yes,” he said of the relationship between Mexico and the United States. “Interventionism: no.”

Mr. Trump said that he planned to designate Mexican drug “cartels” as foreign terrorist organizations because of the high number of Americans killed by their activities, and that he had been working on the listing for three months.

In the exchange, posted on Mr. O’Reilly’s personal website, Mr. O’Reilly asked the president whether he was going to “start hitting them with drones.”

The president replied, “I don’t want to say what I am going to do, but they will be designated.”

Last March, Mr. Trump also openly floated the idea of the designation, saying in an interview with Breitbart News that he was thinking “very seriously” about it.

But a groundswell of support, mainly among conservatives, gained momentum in recent weeks after the killing of three mothers and six of their children, all dual Mexican and American citizens, who were part of a fundamentalist Mormon community in northern Mexico.

The State Department declined to comment on Wednesday, referring several questions to the White House about how many cartels Mr. Trump was looking to designate, or when a decision might be made.

It is not new for the United States to consider listing drug cartels as terrorist organizations. Members of Congress have made similar requests during past presidential administrations, said Jason Blazakis, the former director of the State Department’s office of counterterror finance and designations.

But, Mr. Blazakis said, the United States has largely resisted adding them to official terror organization lists out of concern that it would be a mostly symbolic step that eats up already-scarce resources and could do more damage to diplomacy than good.

Other analysts warned that the designation could undermine or disrupt the carefully tuned relationship between the United States and Mexico, a complex arrangement developed over generations of administrations and covering a broad range of issues, including trade, crime-fighting, finance, migration, tourism and culture.

Arturo Sarukhán, a former Mexican ambassador to Washington, warned that the Trump administration could use the terrorist designation to block loans to Mexico from international financial institutions and even restrict imports to the United States from Mexico.

But some analysts said that Mr. Trump’s announcement could force the Mexican government to strengthen its fight against criminal groups and the corruption that allows them to prosper. Mr. López Obrador has struggled to define a coherent security strategy, and violence has continued to soar during his administration.

“This could also be beneficial for Mexico, since the United States can force Mexico to come up with a more serious security strategy,” said Guillermo Valdés, a former director of Mexico’s National Intelligence Center.

It would not be the first time Mr. Trump has tried to exploit a weakness in Mr. López Obrador’s policies to force change. This year, Mr. Trump’s threats to impose tariffs on Mexico pressured the López Obrador administration to crack down on illegal migration.

“On one hand, there is the arbitrariness and aggression of the Trump administration,” Mr. Valdés said. “And on the other hand, it is also true that there is a lack of security strategy, and what has been tested so far has resulted in utter failure. So, we are at the junction of these two elements.”

Mr. Trump could take a few avenues to listing the cartels. Entire criminal organizations could be added to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, joining about 60, mostly Islamist, groups already on it.

Cartels and their senior leaders could also be designated under an existing executive order that targets terrorist threats. Most of the more than 100 people and organizations currently on that list are also Islamist extremists.

Either of those routes generally take between six months and a year, Mr. Blazakis said, and carry similar consequences. It is illegal for people in the United States to knowingly provide support for a designated foreign terrorist organization, its members are barred from entering the United States, and financial institutions are forbidden from doing business with it.

Mr. Trump has another option as well: He could issue a new executive order, related only to the cartels, to declare them a specific threat to the United States.

Mr. Blazakis said that the Mexican drug cartels largely meet the legal definition of foreign groups that threaten or otherwise terrorize American interests. But he said that adding them to the list could open the door for many other groups to be added, potentially diluting the focus on global extremist threats that Congress sought after Sept. 11.

“The question becomes, ‘If we’re adding these cartels, what other criminal organizations should be added to the list?’ You would really be opening up Pandora’s box,” said Mr. Blazakis, who left the Trump administration in August 2018 after 10 years overseeing the State Department’s terror designations. “So in a way, that terrorism list becomes less of a terrorism list.”

The Treasury Department already targets drug kingpins and senior cartel officials on a separate list that carries many of the same penalties as the terrorist designations.

If the firestorms on social media are any indication, many here in Mexico are also worried that the designation might open the door to some sort of military intervention by the United States.

“Many people are concerned that it signals a counterterrorism approach to dealing with these groups,” said Brian J. Phillips, a former research professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City. “The one thing that nearly unites Mexico is opposition to armed U.S. troops in Mexico territory.”

But the label, he continued, is not equivalent to a declaration of war against the designated group. “It’s quite possible that there’s no change in the military approach to dealing with these groups,” he added.

Mr. Sarukhán, the former ambassador, said that former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both considered applying the foreign terrorist designation to Mexican drug trafficking groups, with the intention of using it to attract more resources to combat drug trafficking.

“We pushed back,” said Mr. Sarukhán, Mexico’s ambassador to Washington during those administrations. “It was the wrong tool for the problem.”

Kirk Semple reported from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and Lara Jakes from Washington. Paulina Villegas contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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