Despite efforts from various U.S. congressmen to convince their peers that Mexican drug cartels should be classified as terrorist organizations operating within the United States, the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) recently decided against it. In doing so, the U.S. administration missed out on yet another opportunity to show resolve in the fight against binational drug-related crime and violence.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón continues a full frontal assault against the cartels, recently deploying a larger contingent of soldiers to border towns, but the U.S. government apparently has other priorities and/or larger problems to deal with.
The Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego writes in its most recent Justice in Mexico report that according to DHS Office of Anti-terrorism Director Grayling Williams, “the mechanisms and laws already in place in the U.S. to deal with drug trafficking are sufficient and the proposed terrorist classification would be unnecessary.”
Although there is no universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism, the key message behind this decision has less to do with defining the term and more to do with how the government agencies are willing to deal with this growing problem. Classifying Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations would set a clear agenda on fighting the drug trade. It would also open up a series of procurement processes for projects combating the issue both within Mexico and the United States.
Such a qualification would also send a clear message to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development on where to focus assistance funding and contract projects. Equally important, it would show that the U.S. is as serious about eliminating this threat as they were when they decided to add Colombia’s FARC to their terrorist list. It also would set the record straight that providing weapons to these organized crime groups is punishable in the same way that it is to establish business transactions with terrorists.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management—who introduced legislation to Congress on March 30 calling for the government to label six Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations—stated that the decision to keep the cartels off the list is a sign of shortsightedness. His response: “The drug cartels are here. The Department of Homeland Security reports that they operate in 276 cities inside the U.S. Only after the murder of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agent Jaime Zapata were 450 cartel members arrested in this country.” The cartel’s transactions are simple: they sell the drugs to U.S. users and buy the weapons to bring back into Mexico and service their bloody exchanges with Mexican federal and state police/military forces.
A reliable source from the intelligence community in Mexico, who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons, volunteered that even after Calderón’s attempts to strengthen military presence at the border, more than 10,000 artillery pieces (automatic weapons and grenades mostly) make their way into Mexico from the U.S. every day. The result? Our forces keep trading bullets with the cartels but the U.S. consumers continue to provide them cash flow and the gun sellers operating in the United States continue to arm them.
Nearly a year ago, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed President Calderón, who then said we needed joint, committed efforts to deal with the drug trafficking issue. Mexico has shown it is ready today but with elections coming in 2012, the resolve shown by Calderón might not remain after the dust has settled.
The window of opportunity could be closing and it’s time for our partner to the north to act, for both our sakes.
*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.