Are Mexico’s Drug Cartels Terrorist Groups?

They’re throwing grenades into U.S. consulates. Why don’t we use the T word?

Violence in Juarez

In October 2008, two assailants believed to be linked to Mexico’s drug cartels fired their weapons and threw a grenade at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico. In March of this year, an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, her husband (both U.S. citizens), and the Mexican spouse of another consulate worker were gunned down as they were leaving a children’s party in the border city. On April 9, a grenade was tossed over the fence at the consulate in Nuevo Laredo across the border from Laredo, Texas.

More than 22,700 people have died in the Mexican drug war since late 2006, according to the Mexican government’s latest figures. U.S. officials as highly placed as the attorney general and the head of U.S. Southern Command have warned of a spillover of the violence, deeming the cartels a “national security threat.” In 2009, Joaquin Guzmán Loera, aka “El Chapo,” and his cohorts in the powerful Sinaloa Cartel allegedly “discussed the use of violence against American and/or Mexican government buildings,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Mexico’s drug cartels are believed to be behind all the attacks mentioned above, so why haven’t they been included on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list?

To qualify for inclusion on that list, a group must be a “foreign organization” and “engage in terrorist activity”—”threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States.”

In the case of the two consulate attacks, a State Department spokeswoman told me, investigations are still pending. No one was hurt in the incidents, and it is still unclear whether the assailants were “trying to send a specific signal to us.” According to the spokeswoman, it remains unclear whether the three people in Ciudad Juarez were killed specifically because of their connection to the consulate. (Indeed, preliminary investigations show the murders may have had nothing to do with the consulate employees.)

But the Ciudad Juarez attack came on the heels of threats against diplomats along the border. And Mexico has undoubtedly experienced terrorism at the hands of the cartels within its own borders—a grenade attack on Independence Day, Sept. 15, 2008, being a prime example.

One reason the drug cartels continue to stay off U.S. terrorist lists is that they are not ideologically or politically motivated. Their sole raison d’être is money. (Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations earn between $18 billion and $39 billion a year, according to U.S. government estimates. Sara Daly, an international terrorism expert at Texas A&M University, says that “the recent attacks are likely viewed as efforts to intimidate” the U.S. government, not as a “political statement.”

Whether the U.S. government should continue to maintain that distinction or reconsider “in light of the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distill which groups and individuals are motivated by the political or ideological and those who are motivated by the financial,” as Daly puts it, remains to be seen. For instance, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has long been regarded as an ideological organization, earning it a place on the State Department’s terrorist list. But since the 1990s, it has been primarily motivated by money, specifically, drug trafficking.

It’s also possible that the U.S. government has been so focused on other known terrorist threats that it has simply not gotten around to reclassifying the Mexican drug cartels. For an organization to make it to State’s terrorism list, intelligence must be analyzed by the Department of Justice, then sent over to Foggy Bottom for review—a painstaking process. Perhaps, says Heritage Foundation Latin America and terrorism expert Ray Walser, “no one in the bureaucracy thought about it.”

Designating the Mexican cartels as terrorists could also put a strain on U.S.-Mexican relations at a time when cooperation in the drug war is unprecedented—a record number of Mexican drug suspects have been extradited to the United States in the last two years, and the prospect of U.S. military assistance on the ground in Mexico has barely raised eyebrows. “Naming them terrorist organizations might offend some Mexicans and might also give the cartels greater prominence than they merit,” explains Walser. Former CIA terrorism analyst Larry C. Johnson agrees. He says the main reason Mexico’s cartels are not labeled terrorists is that doing so wouldn’t jibe with Washington’s “political narrative.” “By the various definitions the U.S. government employs to define terrorism, these should be classified as terrorist incidents,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Maybe if these guys convert to Islam, we’ll relent and start calling a spade a spade.”

In fact, it’s already possible to connect Mexican drug cartels with Islamic terrorists, says former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun. Braun has argued before Congress that in places like West Africa, Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers are already mingling with members of al-Qaida—”staying in the same shady bars, sharing the same prostitutes,” and “developing relationships today that will soon evolve from personal to strategic.”

In the not-too-distant future, Braun cautioned when I interviewed him recently, “corporate al-Qaida will be able to pick up the phone and call corporate Sinaloa. … It’s going to bite us in the ass.”

Of course, there may be a simpler logical explanation. The cartels are already subject to a wide variety of criminal sanctions for offenses ranging from homicide to drug trafficking to money laundering. “Anti-terror measures would not have any practical effect against them in terms of U.S. law enforcement,” says Walser.

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