Trump will ‘absolutely’ designate Mexican cartels like CJNG as terrorists. Will it help?
President Donald Trump’s promise to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations may do little to stem the flow of narcotics to addicted Americans, experts told The Courier Journal.
In a radio interview Tuesday, Trump said he will “absolutely” seek to add cartels such as CJNG and Sinaloa to the official list of terror groups, escalating U.S. efforts to target the criminal organizations that are smuggling in tons of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine every month.
“Look, we’re losing 100,000 people a year to what’s happening and what’s coming through (in) Mexico,” Trump told Bill O’Reilly on his radio program. “They have unlimited money, the people, the cartels, because they have a lot of money because it’s drug money and human trafficking money.”
But some experts dismissed Trump’s comments as a symbolic gesture to “talk tough” on cartels and said his words could fray already strained relations between the two countries.
The U.S. Treasury Department already has a “wide range” of sanction programs and “no shortage of authority” to target people associated with cartels, according to Peter Romaniuk, director of the Center for Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“This is just sort of a bluster. It doesn’t really have any consequence in terms of the matters that will be pursued.”
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Trump’s radio comments come on the heels of cartel violence last month that killed nine people — including six children — with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, as well as The Courier Journal’s recent investigation into Mexico’s Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, better known as CJNG, and its billion-dollar empire headed by the elusive kingpin Rubén Oseguera Cervantes — aka, “El Mencho.”
The Courier Journal’s investigation found CJNG operations in at least 35 U.S. states and Puerto Rico, flooding cities and small towns with thousands of kilos of drugs each year and helping to fuel the country’s deadly addiction crisis.
“CJNG is certainly one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico,” James Carroll, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, told The Courier Journal this week in London, Kentucky, where he met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and state and federal law enforcement officials about Kentucky’s efforts to curb drug addiction.
“Their capacity for violence is almost unmeasured,” Carroll said of CJNG. “And it’s remarkable what they’re willing to do to make sure that they are one of the significant traffickers.”
Trump said his administration has spent the last 90 days working through the designation process spelled out in U.S. law to add the cartels to the terror list.
“You know, designation is not that easy,” he told O’Reilly. “You have to go through a process, and we’re well into that process.
In response, Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s secretary of external relations, issued a statement saying he has contacted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the terror designation.
“The government of Mexico continues our diplomatic work towards an understanding that, with cooperation and intelligence, we can guarantee the security of both countries,” Ebrard said.
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Cartel violence, fought with U.S.-made weapons, has claimed thousands of lives in Mexico, including the killings of the American family in La Mora, Mexico, and dozens of officers in cartel territories.
In response to the slayings in La Mora, Trump sent out a tweet saying authorities in Mexico should “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
Trump’s comments come on the heels of cartel violence that killed nine people — including six children — with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship, as well as a nine-month Courier Journal investigation into Mexico’s Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, better known as CJNG, and its billion-dollar empire headed by the elusive kingpin Rubén Oseguera Cervantes — aka, “El Mencho.”
In a Nov. 5 tweet, Trump vowed to assist Mexican officials “in cleaning out these monsters.”
“The cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!”
But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declined Trump’s offer for U.S. troops.
Trump told O’Reilly he’s told Obrador that the U.S. military assistance is available.
“I’ve actually offered him to let us go in and clean it out and he so far has rejected the offer,” Trump said. “But at some point (something) has to be done.”
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Experts concerned with designation
Experts warn that any terrorist designation on Mexican cartels could have social and political implications.
It could make Mexico more reticent to cooperate with the U.S. on battling cartels, said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office for Latin America.
“This designation could further damage the already fragile U.S.-Mexico relationship, including on cooperation to combat transnational criminal organizations,” she said. “Addressing widespread violence and the drug trade in Mexico requires strengthening Mexico’s criminal justice and public security institutions, not threats of military intervention and tools focused on combating terrorism rather than organized crime.
“The motives of drug cartels in Mexico are also more profit-driven, they aren’t focused on promoting political and social change, and the tools used to address terrorist groups haven’t been as effective in going against criminal groups.”
Romaniuk, the terrorism expert, said governments shouldn’t further dilute the meaning of terrorism and counter-terrorism by equating it with organized crime — and by using counter-terrorism sanctions inconsistently.
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Sanctions already placed on CJNG
If Mexican cartels were to be marked as terror groups, the designation would be made by the U.S. State Department.
A spokeswoman from the agency on Wednesday refused to comment, saying they “don’t discuss deliberations or the potential deliberations of our designations process.”
Labeling cartels as foreign terrorist organizations gives the U.S. more latitude to target the cartel’s financial and business assets, as well as the assets of any person or entity suspected of supporting a cartel.
But the Treasury Department has designated more than 2,000 individuals and entities as “significant” foreign narcotics traffickers it can impose financial and economic sanctions on.
El Mencho and CJNG were already sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2015, allowing the agency to go after Mexican businesses linked to the cartel, including a sushi restaurant, a tequila business, two newspapers and a luxury hotel.
In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced additional sanctions against businesses linked to CJNG and announced a $10 million reward for El Mencho’s capture.
But, as Carroll noted, arresting El Mencho will not necessarily bring an end to his organization.
“Other people will spring up into action,” Carroll said. “So, it’s important we think of this holistically and bring a whole U.S. government perspective in going after them, stopping the bulk cash going south and the weapons going south.”
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Other federal agencies also have strategies for combating cartels and transnational organized crime.
A Department of Justice program in place for more than 35 years funds state and local task forces to help dismantle and defund drug trafficking operations.
In western North Carolina, where cartel drugs are rampant, one of those local task forces led by the local U.S. Attorney’s Office — Operation Dixie Crystal — is responsible for convicting more than 266 federal defendants for methamphetamine trafficking since 2012.
Those efforts are ongoing, authorities said.
Staff reporters Beth Warren and Savannah Eadens contributed to this story.
Jonathan Bullington is an investigative reporter. Reach him at 502-582-4241; JBullington@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @jrbullington. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/jonathanb.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Trump says he’ll designate Mexican cartels like CJNG as terror groups
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