Some Republicans in Congress are ratcheting up efforts to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups, making it easier for the U.S. to seize bank accounts and impose stiffer penalties on the gun runners who supply the groups with weapons.
Mexican drug cartels have been blamed for more than 36,000 deaths in Mexico in the past five years. Their methods are brutal and include beheadings, torture and mass killings.
Cartels such as Los Zetas and Sinaloa use terror to ensure their business – drugs and money – move freely throughout Mexico and across the U.S. border, said Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, on Wednesday at a House subcommittee hearing.
“The barbarism – al Qaeda has nothing on these Mexican cartels,” McCraw said.
If Mexican cartels act like terrorists, should the United States deal with them as terrorists? Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, thinks so. He introduced a bill on March 30 asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to designate Los Zetas, Sinaloa, La Familia Michoacana and three other cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. The bill has not yet made it out of committee.
“In my view, we got to call them what they are. Their tactics are certainly like a terrorist,” McCaul said.
Organizations that use violence to intimidate governments or civilians in pursuit of a political goal are considered terrorists by federal definitions.
Mexican drug cartels do not meet this definition, said Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute.
“If they’re not seeking political change, then they’re something else,” Levitt said in a phone interview. “They’re in this for the money, which in some ways makes them more dangerous.”
Department of Justice and Homeland Security officials disagree with classifying as terror organizations, saying they need more resources, not more laws.
“We have very, very powerful penalties here in the United States … Having another crime won’t make a difference,” Amy Pope, deputy chief of staff for the criminal division of the DOJ, said at Wednesday’s hearing.
The Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act already allows prosecutors to freeze U.S. bank accounts belonging to cartel members.
If the cartels are designated as terrorist groups the government can seize an entire organization’s assets, not just accounts belonging to the kingpin, McCaul said. It would also add 15 years to the sentence of anyone supplying guns to the cartels.
Under the Kingpin Act, the penalty for taking a gun illegally across the border is one year. While Pope said her agency is advocating for stiffer penalties, she does not believe a terrorist designation is the answer. Prosecutors would still have to make the terrorist connection to impose the elevated charge.
Changing the designation from cartel to terrorist is a slippery slope, said Rep. Yvette Clarke, New York Democrat.
Grayling Williams, director of Homeland Security’s Counternarcotic Enforcement, echoed Clark’s sentiment.
“Do we call gangs on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant terrorists because they engage in rival gun battles?” Williams said.
Instead of changing the name of cartels, Levitt said the government should ensure the agencies investigating and prosecuting drug traffickers have the tools to do so.
That means stiffer penalties on existing laws and an enhanced ability to extradite criminals to the U.S. to face those penalties.