What is the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) status?

Photo: BBC - Mundo

Back on March this year, president Trump was already saying he was “very seriously” considering labeling Mexican drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), and some other politicians and activist groups support the move.

This would be an extreme policy shift — and might not result in the intended consequences. Does this approach make sense for dealing with criminal organizations in Mexico? Here’s what you need to know:


What is FTO status?

Since 1997, the State Department has named dozens of militant groups as FTOs. This makes them subject to U.S. economic and other sanctions.

FTO designation is a powerful tool. It’s an influential global symbol, identifying certain militant groups as threats. When the State Department designates a group a “terrorist organization,” other countries are more likely to follow suit. My research suggests that when the State Department designates militant groups in U.S.-aligned countries as FTOs, there is a substantial reduction in violence.

FTO designation also has drawbacks — it can complicate peace processes. Proscribing militant groups can also adversely affect humanitarian aidcharities and broader communities. Here’s why: people and groups fear they could unwittingly provide “material support” for a listed group, potentially resulting in prosecution.


Are Mexican cartels terrorist organizations?

Mexican cartels use horrifying violence — research suggests this amounts to what are, arguably, terrorist tactics. Criminal groups around the world also use these tactics, although usually at a lower scale than the Mexican groups. Regardless, it’s not clear that sometimes using terrorist-like violence makes groups “terrorist organizations.”

Experts on terrorism and organized crime often distinguish between terrorist groups and criminal groups for a number of reasons. Political or social change motivates terrorists, primarily — while criminals are primarily motivated by making money. There are of course some overlaps between group types — some cartels use extreme violence, and some terrorists sell drugs. But generally, groups specialize in one type of activity or the other.


What happens when governments apply counterterrorism policy to criminals?

How the U.S. labels groups is not simply a theoretical issue. There are serious policy implications.

Using a counterterrorism designation for criminal groups would legally codify the notion that these groups are terrorists — like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. This would signal to U.S. agencies and U.S. allies around the world that counterterrorism is the right approach for groups more typically thought of as criminals.

Applying counterterrorism frameworks to organized crime, and particularly drug traffickers, is not new. The United States has long encouraged Latin American governments to use counterterrorism or counterinsurgency approaches against criminal groups, but with mixed results.

Certain tactics — like leadership targeting — often work against more political groups like terrorists, but usually backfire against criminal groups.

Leadership targeting has been effective for counterinsurgency because it can be an important symbolic blow, and symbolism matters for political groups. For criminal groups, however, leadership targeting simply creates job openings and market opportunities. This often leads to massive bloodshed, as we’ve seen in Mexico.

While counterterror and counternarcotics operations often overlap, FTO designation seems likely to signal a drastic change in U.S. counterterrorism policy.


Does the designation of Mexican cartels as FTOs limit Mexico’s options?

Of course designating Mexican cartels as FTOs would limit Mexico’s options. This is especially noteworthy because Mexico’s new president admitted at some point in time that he was even considering negotiations or amnesties to reduce cartel violence. And his administration’s lack of strategy is just evident.

FTO designation would complicate any Mexican government deals for criminal groups, and U.S. agencies or NGOs that might want to help a potential Mexican peace process would be constrained as well.

 The Yucatan Times Newsroom with information from The Washington Post


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