Mexican Drug Cartels Are Violent — But They’re Not Terrorists


In early November 2019, nine dual U.S.-Mexican citizens were killed in Mexico in a terrifying attack by suspected members of a drug trafficking cartel. Three women and six children, including two infants, were shot or burned alive in a three-car convoy near the U.S. border. One child was shot in the back trying to escape the massacre. The ambush highlights the rising violence attributed to drug cartels in Mexico.

In response, President Donald Trump tweeted that it was time for the United States to, “wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.” Later in an interview, Trump said he intended to designate drug trafficking cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. The practical effects of that designation would be to freeze assets, impose travel restrictions, and the prosecution of individuals suspected of being a member of a designated organization, or for providing material support to one. Both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations at one time considered the same move, but abandoned those plans when it became clear it would jeopardize security and economic cooperation with Mexico. Others in the U.S. government considered the Mexican cartels a form of insurgency. For example, in 2010 then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “we face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into, or making common cause with, what we would consider an insurgency.



The United States government should not designate drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations for two reasons. First, drug cartels are not terrorists or insurgents trying to remove or replace the government. They are criminal organizations focused solely on maximizing their income. Secondly, designating the cartels terrorists will do nothing to restrain cartel violence, and may actually make matters worse. It would also poison relations with Mexico, an imperfect — but vital — partner in combating drug trafficking. Using such a designation as a predicate for U.S. military activity in Mexico would be, to say the least, unwelcome and ineffective. Though the cartels are violent organizations that pose a risk to U.S. interests, misapplying a terrorist organization designation would be a serious mistake.

Are Mexican Drug Cartels Terrorists, Insurgents, or Something Else? 

Mexican drug cartels are not terrorists or insurgents because their goal is to maximize profit, not fundamentally change society and politics. The Secretary of State is directed to designate an entity a “foreign terrorist organization” if an organization engages in, or has the capacity and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism that threatens the security of the United States or its nationals at home or abroad. In combination, the laws that direct the Secretary of State to make such a designation is pretty exhaustive. Titles 8 and 22 of the United States Code draw up a broad list of activities that count as “terrorist activity,” which includes hijacking, taking hostages, assassination, and using weapons with the intent to endanger lives or damage property. A “terrorist group” can consist of as few of two people, but just one of which has to actually participate in or provide support to terrorist activity. To “engage in terrorist activity,” can include participating in the foregoing, planning, gathering intelligence in support of, soliciting funds for, recruiting personnel, or providing logistical support for an act of terrorism. At the root of all this, the relevant U.S. legal definition of “terrorism” is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

Insurgencies seek to remove and replace a country’s existing political system. The 2018 version of the U.S. Department of Defense counterinsurgency manual defines insurgency as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.” That manual contemplates the existence of an insurgency driven by criminal enterprise, which may be consistent with drug cartels, but it also dismisses these as unique exceptions to the rule that insurgencies have political motives.

Adding a criminal facet to insurgency amounts to an unfortunate muddying of the concept. If a violent movement is criminal in nature and driven by profit, and does not want to supplant established political governance (but perhaps diminish a government’s effectiveness at crime-fighting), then it is not an insurgency. The 2006 edition of the counterinsurgency manual was more helpful; it defined an insurgency as, “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” Some insurgencies use terror as tactic, but not all terrorists are insurgents.

Since a common element of both terrorism and insurgency is a motive to change politics, classifying a drug cartel as one or the other must begin by determining its strategic objective. A drug cartel is an illicit business enterprise, with the objective of maximizing profits for its participants. As with legal businesses, drug cartels engage in different strategies to out-bid competitors and secure markets. However, unlike legitimate businesses, drug cartels cannot turn to an established government authority to settle disputes, enforce contractual relationships, or protect their business capital from the predation of others, a drug cartel must do these on its own. Consequently, drug cartels rely on violence to do so. Not all illicit enterprises use violence at quite the same intensity, but illegal drug enterprises are notoriously violent. Profit motivates a drug cartel to use violence; violence is used to protect its business, settle disputes, and avoid law enforcement. Coercion, intimidation, and undermining the effectiveness of a government are goals a drug cartel can have in common with terrorist groups, but it does so to maximize its profit.

Mexican drug cartels are extremely violent, and the effect of that violence is terrifying. But it would be a mistake to conclude that this makes them terrorists. Additionally, some cartels are extremely well organized, sometimes wear uniforms, and seem to operate in semi-regular formations, but that does not necessarily make them insurgents. Some sources estimate that the cartels are responsible for more than 70,000 murders in Mexico between 2006 and 2015. Not only do the cartels exceed in the scale of their violence, but they have also been excessively cruel and gruesome in how they carry out their violence. These characteristics alone may induce some to characterize them as terrorists, since the magnitude and malevolence of their violence rivals known terrorist organizations. Some of these also operated as insurgencies at some point in their existence, such as ISIL, al-Shabaab, Shining Path, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Yet, it is not violence itself that characterizes a terror group or insurgency, but the end to which that violence is employed.

It may also be tempting to conclude that since terrorist organizations and insurgencies often turn to illicit enterprises in order to fund their activity, the profit-seeking motive of Mexican drug cartels is consistent with the motives and behaviors of known terrorist organizations, whose designation as such is non-controversial. Furthermore, the increasingly blurry line between terror groups and criminal gangs may make the distinction unhelpful, or worse, a hindrance to effectively providing security from their violence. Indeed, the behavior of drug cartels, terror groups, and insurgencies can make distinction difficult. Drug cartels can use violence to coerce and intimidate civilians and government personnel alike, just as terror groups use violence to rob banks, hijack trucks, and break people out of jail. The ultimate objective is the determining factor, however; drug cartels use violence to seek profit, terrorists use violence to advance a political objective.

As with terrorist organizations and insurgencies, drug cartels in Mexico employ narratives to build support from the population, recruit new soldiers, or at least convince people to stay out of their way. For example, narcocorridos or drug trafficking ballads mythologize Mexican drug traffickers and have become an increasingly popular form of folk music in the Mexican north. Mexican drug traffickers even have their own patron saint, Jesus Malverde (though the Catholic Church does not recognize Malverde in its canon of saints), which combined with the narcocorridos serve to align the contemporary drug-lord and trafficker with the romanticized bandits and revolutionaries from earlier periods of Mexican history. Even though terror groups, insurgencies, and Mexican drug cartels use master-narratives that exploit cultural currents, this does not mean that the cartels have become something other than criminal enterprises. Appropriating cultural forms, myths, and religious symbols to attract support and legitimize illicit activity is not uncommon among criminal organizations, having been used by contemporary street gangs and the Cosa Nostra of the last century. The critical distinction remains: drug cartels can use culture, as they can coopt political structures, in order to pursue an illicit enterprise, but they do not seek to replace existing governance structures or extract political concessions.

Designating cartels foreign terrorist organization could mean that defendants in the United States connected with cartel trafficking could be charged with providing “material support” for terrorism. However, bringing a federal case for crimes committed in the United States by people who may be loosely connected with the cartels will likely have only negligible effect on violence levels in Mexico. This supplemental prosecutorial option may unintentionally open jurisdictional questions without providing additional crime-fighting leverage not offered under U.S. domestic counter-drug law. For example, the U.S. Treasury Department already maintains a list of “Specifically Designated Individuals” connected with the drug trade, which provides similar restrictions as the foreign terrorist organization designation.

Is the Distinction Important?

In spite of being fundamentally different from terrorist organizations, the Mexican cartels may share with them something in common: governments have responded to both with an overly militarized approach. For example, Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki conducted a RAND study on how terrorist organizations end, and found that military force was rarely effective at bringing about the demise of terror groups, but intelligence-led policing was more effective. Decapitation (killing or capturing a leader) of a terrorist organization was also only marginally effective in some cases, as found by Jenna Jordan in her 2009 study. These findings have an ominous echo in Mexico.

During the Felipe Calderón presidency beginning in 2006, the Mexican government used its military in an aggressive fashion against the cartels. Massive joint deployments of Mexican land, air, and maritime units targeted cartel leaders and successfully killed or captured many key cartel leaders. Instead of destroying these organizations, violence rose precipitously, and spread beyond targeted communities, as found by Gabriela Calderón and her co-investigators in their 2015 study, confirming the work of others before them. Instead of simply degrading the effectiveness of a drug cartel, decapitation begins a process of intra-gang competition among potential successors, consolidating support, and trying to weed out suspected disloyal conspirators. Decapitating drug cartels also tends to splinter these criminal enterprises, which then violently clash over territory and resources. This similarity between terrorist organizations and the Mexican cartels should serve as a cautionary tale.

Labeling Cartels as “Terrorist Groups” Won’t Work

While drug cartels are violent organizations that threaten U.S. national interests, they cannot be plausibly designated terrorist organizations or insurgents. Unlike terrorists, cartels do not want to fundamentally alter or replace existing governance structures. If designating the cartels “terrorists” is a predicate or justification for future U.S. military activity against them, as was suggested by Trump in an interview, it is even more important to fully understand the ramifications of that designation.

Designating cartels as terrorist groups might give law enforcement more prosecutorial tools to levy against drug traffickers, but it could lead to an overly militarized approach to the problem that would be doomed to fail. It would also be toxic for American ties with Mexico, arguably Washington’s most important bilateral relationship. Ultimately, intelligence-led policing has been more effective against organizations like the drug cartels than military suppression. Mistaking criminal enterprises for terrorists or insurgents because they are exceedingly violent would be another costly error.



Scott Englund is a faculty member at the National Intelligence University in the Transnational Issues Department specializing in terrorism, counter-terror policy, and international politics. Prior to his academic career, Dr. Englund served as an Intelligence Analyst for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and is a graduate of the analyst course at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. As an analyst for the Department of Defense, Dr. Englund deployed to Iraq four times in support of operations there.

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