Imagine for a moment that groups of Islamic terrorists set up shop at our border, killed tens of thousands of Mexicans, mutilated bodies, controlled a flow of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants every year over our border, and flooded our country with drugs and gangs. These organizations, in our “hypothetical,” operate in over 40 countries, are flush with weapons, money, and military-style tactics, control operations inside our country, and bring in drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil that are essentially chemical weapons.
Try to picture the reaction of our government under that circumstance.
Now look at the reality. All of this is happening at our border and in our communities, with one exception. The perpetrators are not Islamic terrorists. It’s time for Trump to designate the Mexican cartels, such as Sinaloa, Zetas, Juarez, Jalisco, Gulf, La Familia Michoacán (LFM), and Los Guerreros Unidos (LGU), as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).
Although many of these groups have already been designated as Transnational Criminal Organizations, we will not be able to defend our national integrity and security with the tools we have, such as special operations strikes, until they are designated as terrorists.
These ain’t your grandfather’s drug cartels
Jaeson Jones, who spent 24 years with Texas Department of Public Safety’s intelligence and counterterrorism division, has studied and fought the cartels for his entire career and regularly speaks with cartel informants. He told me that “the term Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO) provides no authorities to law enforcement or the Department of Defense to eliminate the Mexican cartels” as the term “terrorist” would. “If we are to be successful in the future, our nation must designate the cartels as terrorists,” he said. “Then our military can collaborate with host countries around the world to end them.”
According to Jones, most of these named cartels operate in 50 countries, including in Asia, Australia, and Europe. Our military could work not just with the Mexican government but with close allies around the world to disrupt their operations.
Jones warns that the threat from the cartels, in some ways, is worse than that of Islamic jihad in our hypothetical. “We are confronted with a new threat, one more sinister in many ways than Islamic terrorists around the world. They do not kill for political change or ideology. They kill for money and control. If our nation is to meet this 21st-century threat, then we must be willing to create a new arena of counterterrorism.”
Indeed, the brutality of the cartels is unrivaled anywhere in the world, and it’s right on our border and in our communities. Remember, all of the people coming into the U.S. from Central America are “brought into the culture of the [Mexican] cartels if they don’t have the money,” as Jones warned on my podcast last week. “When the Zetas were in strength, I can tell you times when they would have kill houses and be killing these people in mass numbers of 10 and 20 in a night and then taking their bodies, hanging them up, and putting mantras and signs on them to a rival cartel that ‘If you come into our area, this is what’s going to happen to you.’”
The cartel terrorism has gotten so bad that even the popular resorts with wealthy Americans, such as Cancun, are now unsafe for travel. Mexico has over 250,000 dead and 38,000 missing since 2007. Just from September 2017 to July 1, 2018, 132 politicians and candidates were murdered in Mexico leading up to the recent elections.
Derek Maltz, former head of the DEA’s Special Operations Division, told me that if you just take a look at the State Department’s designation requirements, “it’s very clear the Mexican cartels fit the criteria of a terrorist group.” Maltz laments that our government still treats the Mexican cartels as “an isolated silo” of organized crime divorced from global terror, even though “for years, the leadership in our government has warned how terrorists are increasingly turning to drugs and organized criminal networks for their funding.” The same cartels that have “infiltrated all the major cities in America,” according to Maltz, are “operating in over 50 countries, helping to supply funding to Islamic terror groups through the West Africa drug trade.”
According to 18 U.S.C. § 2331, international terrorism is defined as, among other things, “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life” that violate federal or state law and are designed “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;” and “occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
Indeed, instilling fear and terror over turf is just as much a part of their modus operandi as drug smuggling. How would a terror designation help?
“When you look at the production operations in Mexico, it seems very clear to me that with all our intel, we could hit those laboratories and poppy fields hard with DOD capabilities,” said Matlz. “If we can destroy the production sites, the supply would go way down and make the cost more prohibitive for our youth.”
The quantum leap from drug runners to violent paramilitary terror groups
As much as the drug crisis itself should drive our treatment of these groups as terrorists, Jones warns that the cartels have evolved into a much greater threat than mere drug cartels; they are now “global violent organizations.” “We are seeing these cartels evolve in quantum leaps in capabilities,” he warned.
Jones noted that the quantum leap began with the Zetas cartel, which was made of former Mexican military special forces, often trained by our own military, where they used commando tactics and high-level weapons. The Zetas were responsible for the murder of Jaime Zapata, an ICE agent, who was forced off the road in Mexico and gunned down by operatives of the infamous cartel in 2011. Now, all the other cartels have upgraded their weapons and tactics. Breitbart Texas reported this week that El Torey, a known terrorist who led a grenade attack against our consulate in Monterrey last decade, is now the head of the Cartel Del Noreste faction of the Zetas and is allied with the equally dangerous Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) cartel in its war against the Gulf Cartel. This is causing unspeakable violence along our Texas border near Laredo.
The opinion by many in our broken intelligence agencies that these problems are not bleeding over to our side of the border is willful blindness.
Jones said, “Never mind the military-grade weapons that they’re using; look at the tactics. To cross into the U.S., you don’t just walk across the border. That’s not how it works. What happens is they have what are known as halcons or falcons [cartel lookouts], and there are literally thousands of them. These halcons utilize handheld radios that are digital in nature and encrypted as they monitor our movements and bring across their contraband. The halcons and the sicarios, which are assassins that we’re trying to work against, are leveraging a capability that our law enforcement, particularly local law enforcement, do not possess.”
Their threat is so much greater than just drugs, which in itself has evolved to what is essentially chemical warfare against our country. It’s a sovereignty issue, says Jones:
A new trend we’re seeing is where they’re taking armored vehicles and cloning them with military insignias from Mexico. That allows them to get up close to the military so that they can engage them. You see what I’m saying about tradecraft, military tactics, and what they’re using. These are not things that normal law enforcement can take on, and it’s imperative that our government recognize that, at some point, we’ve got to start creating the ability for the Department of Defense to be able to get into this and have authorities to go out and help Mexico be successful because a lot of folks, again, forget Mexico has thrown everything they’ve had at this since 2006, and it is getting worse, not better.
But it’s not just at the border. Cartel associates are now all over our country, taking orders from these paramilitary groups we refuse to eradicate. The FBI is currently looking for Juan Alberto Mendez, a known Gulf Cartel member, in the Indianapolis area. He is wanted for murder, drug trafficking, and racketeering in Indiana and Texas.
FARC, the infamous Colombian cartel, has already been designated as a terror group, but it took years for our intelligence agencies and the State Department to recognize the threat from the Colombian cartels and that it wasn’t just about drugs. Jones explains that the Mexican cartels were trained by these very actors that are already designated. “We’re seeing a lot more Colombians intermingled within the training and tradecraft of multiple cartels, so things are evolving and changing every day. That’s just another example of the hypocritical mindset of our intel agencies; they understand these tools are the tradecraft of a terrorist organization, yet the cartels are employing and utilizing them every day but they refuse to designate them as terrorists.”
Why wait until it’s too late?
Trump has two choices. He can either grovel before Pelosi and offer a massive amnesty in order to get some pennies for a partial border fence, as suggested by Jared Kushner and the Koch staffers in the White House. Or he can actually use his existing powers as commander in chief to finally go to the source of the illegal immigration and drug problems and deal with it as a national security threat. Designating the cartels as terrorists will go a long way both in terms of policy and messaging to the public in building that case.
Why do we always have to wait until a problem is too big to solve with straightforward military operations to understand the strategic threats? Our intelligence community is always a generation behind the problem. The cartels are getting stronger by the day, thanks to our immigration policies and our callous disregard for the security threat they pose to our nation. Trump needs to build the case with the public and with the Mexican government that he is committed to destroying the cartels and their infrastructure and is willing to expend DOD resources to do so. This begins with designating them as terrorists and building up our military at our border. As Jaeson Jones warned, “It’s not a matter of if we’re going to end up going after the cartels. It’s a matter of when.” Why not do it from a position of strength?
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.