MEXICO CITY — President Donald Trump’s intention to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations — a move which might portend deeper U.S. incursions into Mexican security — is drawing support from some of the relatives of families killed in an ambush early this month.
The victims, members of Mormon offshoot communities with dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship, were gunned down in an attack in Sonora, about three hours south of the Arizona-Mexico border. The apparent ambush has widely been blamed on cartel violence.
Trump’s remark Tuesday night suggested the administration has been working on a terrorist designation. “I will be designating the cartels — absolutely,” he said. “You know designation is not that easy. You have to go through a process and we’re well into that process.”
Those plans appeared to catch the Mexican government off-guard. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted,”Mexico will not accept any action that signifies a violation of its national sovereignty.”
But the controversy over cartels highlights a lack of public progress in the ambush investigation. More than three weeks after three women and six children were killed, there have been no arrests, and little new information released about who might be held responsible.
The case is being investigated by both Mexican judicial officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Victims’ families respond
Victims’ relatives on both sides of the border have waged vocal campaigns for bringing the perpetrators to justice — something rare in Mexico, where the relatives of victims of violence are often stigmatized by society and the authorities, and those slain in the rising drug violence are often seen as somehow complicit in the crimes committed against them. Relatives’ efforts include calling for the same sort of terror designation Trump described.
A White House petition, filed online Nov. 24, asked Trump to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. Julian LeBaron, a spokesman for the victims’ families, told USA TODAY the petition was probably filed by relatives who reside in the United States.
LeBaron was unable to say what progress had been made on the case, but suggested that more evidence exists. “There’s a video that the FBI has of 12 guys dressed in black with helmets, like special forces, coming down the hill, opening fire on my cousin’s vehicle,” he said.
Some in the family expressed hopes the terrorism designation would bring about more cross-border cooperation on going after drug cartels.
“Regardless of the State Department’s definition of terrorism, we can’t help but believe it,” Alex LeBaron told USA TODAY.
“They’re playing to their supporters,” LeBaron said of the presidents of Mexico and the United States — while acknowledging Trump is seeking re-election.
“They can say what they want, they can wrap themselves in any one of the two flags. All we want is results. … All we’re asking for is better cooperation.”
Mexican drug cartels have carried out shocking acts of violence over the past 13 years — a period that coincides with then-President Felipe Calderón declaring war on the cartels and organized crime and deploying the army to stamp them out.
Calderón’s decision in December 2006, starting with sending soldiers into his home state of Michoacán, was preceded by a cartel known as La Familia Michoacana bowling human heads onto the dancefloor of a bar. The atrocities have only escalated and included hanging bodies from bridges, shooting up bars and burning buses to thwart attempts at capturing cartel capos.
“It’s not being stopped,” LeBaron said of the violence. “This is completely out of control and we can’t sit by and watch this.”
Would terrorist designation help?
Experts, however, question if Trump’s plan to designate cartels as terrorists has been thought through. Mexican drug cartels arm themselves with U.S. weapons, so selling guns to the cartels could be providing “material support” to a foreign terrorist organization, said Brian Phillips, a terrorism expert at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom.
“These are criminal groups. At the end of the day their primary goal is to make money,” Phillips said of the drug cartels. “There are many political implications: they scare people from voting, the have preferred political candidates, but their primary goal regarding the government is to be left alone by the government to make money, so I don’t see them as the same as Al-Qaeda or the FARC in Colombia.”
Migrants fleeing violence in Mexico and wishing to seek asylum in the United States could have their cases strengthened as they “may soon be victims of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, on the same list as ISIS, Boko Haram, and (Colombia’s) ELN,” tweeted Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights think tank.
The crackdown on drug cartels has fragmented the Mexican underworld. As cartel kingpins are killed, criminal organizations splinter, causing local conflicts. Analysts say there’s also the issue of corrupted public officials to contend with.
“It doesn’t follow the formula good state versus evil cartels. … The lines between crime and state are highly porous,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. “This helps to explain why the past 13 years of hard-handed, militarized approach to fighting organized crime in Mexico has not only failed to achieve results, but backfired and increased violence. Further escalating this logic by applying the terror jargon and potentially some of the measures associated with it thus carries a big risk of making things worse.”
Shifting Mexican policies
The Nov. 4 attack captured worldwide attention and marked yet another grim milestone in Mexico’s drug war, which has claimed more than 250,000 lives and left more than 35,000 missing.
The attack also thrust isolated communities — which date to the 1870s and have roots in Mormon efforts to avoid polygamy laws in the United States — into the spotlight again. Two community members, including an anticrime activist, were murdered in 2009 after locals refused to pay a ransom for a kidnapped boy.
Their most recent activism hasn’t always been well-received. The hashtags “LeBaron Out of Mexico” and “LeBaron Traitors to the Fatherland” trended Wednesday on Twitter.
Mexican policy on cartel violence, though, has been shifting — at least rhetorically — as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks of “hugs not bullets” and solving what he considers to be the root causes of crime: corruption and violence.
In a Tuesday statement, the Foreign Ministry said it would seek dialogue on plans for the terror designation – along with the issue of U.S. weapons being smuggled into Mexico.
López Obrador sought a soft posture, telling the nation Wednesday, “I want to send a hug to the American people. It’s not a good time for confrontational politics. … Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.”
For his part, Julián LeBarón, known as an activist for victims in Mexico, found common ground with the president’s criticisms of Mexico’s cartel crackdown as ill-conceived.
“It’s been a catastrophic failure. The numbers tell that story,” he said. “I don’t think it’s stopped drug-trafficking in any way. The only thing it does is make it a much more profitable business for the terrorists.”
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Family of Mexico ambush victims see ‘terrorist’ designation as reality