Mexico’s Security Dilemma

In Brief

Mexico’s Security Dilemma

Amid a spate of drug cartel attacks, Mexico is considering whether to increase security cooperation with the United States.

Surging violence has invigorated international and domestic criticism of the Mexican government’s long-standing campaign against organized crime. The United States has ratcheted up pressure to stem the attacks, threatening to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. This tightened focus on Mexico City’s security policies could create new challenges for bilateral ties.

What’s happening?

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Last year was Mexico’s deadliest in recent history, with more than thirty-five thousand murders recorded in 2019. Another five thousand people disappeared last year, officials announced this month. In the last half century, 61,637 people have disappeared, most of them after the government launched its war on drug cartels in 2006, according to new data from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO) government. However, that number is likely higher.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

The rise in violence comes despite AMLO’s efforts to overhaul Mexico’s cartel-fighting strategy, which has long been called ineffective. He promised a “hugs not bullets” approach, a departure from his predecessors’ militaristic tactics. Nonetheless, AMLO eventually deployed a new National Guard to curb violence, a force that experts say will need training and time to become effective.

The killing of nine U.S.-Mexican dual citizens in November, along with other high-profile attacks and the escape of a cartel leader, has renewed U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s focus on Mexican security. Trump floated the idea of designating Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Mexican officials pushed back against the proposal, with AMLO reaffirming his administration’s willingness to cooperate but rejecting U.S. interventionism. U.S. Attorney General William Barr later met with AMLO in Mexico City, where the two discussed bilateral strategies to counter the drug cartels. At AMLO’s request, Trump agreed to delay the terrorist designations.

A bus on fire.
Set alight by cartel gunmen to block a road, a bus burns in Culiacan, Mexico. Stringer/Reuters

What is a foreign terrorist organization?

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism identifies possible foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), which are non-U.S. groups with terrorist capabilities that threaten national security or interests. More than sixty groups [PDF] are currently designated as such.

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The U.S. government can require financial institutions to block transactions with FTOs and prosecute people who knowingly provide resources to them. Designations also heighten global awareness of these groups and encourage other nations to penalize them.

What could a designation mean for U.S.-Mexico ties?

AMLO faces thorny decisions in his bid to end Mexico’s long-standing drug war. An FTO designation by Washington opens doors to economic repercussions and intervention by a northern neighbor many blame for fueling the violence. Yet, resisting Trump’s policies could cool bilateral ties.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Experts say that designating cartels as terrorist organizations could dampen tourism, restrict U.S. imports from Mexico, and drive up costs for American businesses in Mexico. Additionally, the Trump administration could use an FTO designation to justify a military incursion, which some say would agitate U.S.-Mexico relations and fail to stamp out tentacular cartels. Some Mexican officials are also worried that the designation could bring back a certifications process [PDF] in which Mexico’s government has to report to the United States on its crime-fighting tactics to avoid sanctions.

Violence in Mexico, which many blame on a steady supply of firearms and demand for drugs from the United States, has long been a thorn in the bilateral relationship. Cartels capitalize on the ease of purchasing U.S. guns and transporting them across the border; an estimated 70 percent of Mexican gun crimes are linked to U.S. firearms. Drug consumption also fuels the violence, an issue some U.S. and Mexican officials believe the United States should do more to address. An FTO designation could allow the U.S. government to charge cartels’ American gun suppliers and drug buyers with supporting terrorism, observers say.

It remains unclear whether the two countries will be able to increase anti-cartel cooperation, or whether their policies will continue to antagonize one another.

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