GOP Presidential Field Rallies Around One Idea: Declare Drug Cartels Terrorists

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By Philip Wegmann for RealClearWire

The clarion call to “build the wall” is no longer enough. Each of the declared Republican candidates for president tell RealClearPolitics that Mexican drug cartels must be designated as foreign terrorist organizations. It is the newest populist orthodoxy, one that the Biden administration flatly rejects.

The context for the latest partisan divide was Friday’s kidnapping of four Americans in the Mexican border town of Matamoros. Two of them were murdered, the other two were rescued and are in a Texas hospital. The White House insisted this kind of designation is unnecessary while implying that their critics are grandstanding..

“Designating these cartels as [foreign terrorist organizations] would not grant us any additional authorities that we don’t really have at this time,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday, adding that the United States already has “powerful sanctions authorities” and “we have not been afraid to use them.”

The steady flow of fentanyl across the southern border, and the violence that follows, have left Republicans unconvinced. The say the federal government must do more. Legislation reintroduced Wednesday by Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas and Rick Scott of Florida would designate the cartels as terrorist organizations, providing what they describe as “additional power” for law enforcement to combat drug trafficking.

The bill’s sponsors say it would grant the Treasury Department necessary new authority to freeze the assets of cartels beyond the sanctions that the U.S. has in place. Beyond banking, it would also flag any foreign national formally associated with a cartel as an individual “engaged in terrorist activity” and ban them from entering the country, while make it illegal for anyone to knowingly provide them “material support.”

Related: Former AG Bill Barr Calls For Military Action Against Drug Cartels Inside Mexico’s Border

Once the Mexican drug cartels are placed in the same legal category as al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Republicans now competing for the presidency have revealed an appetite for more than financial assets. Former President Donald Trump, who is running again in 2024, promised in January that he would “designate the major drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations” and then deploy special forces to “inflict maximum damage” on their infrastructure and operations.

A Trump campaign spokesman told RCP that the goal is simple: “Stop the scourge of drugs and violence from crossing our southern border.” The plan, straightforward: “Declare war on the cartels.”

By design or otherwise, the move creates a contrast with the current president. Republicans have accused him of being MIA on the entire border issue since coming into office, with the Trump campaign arguing that “Joe Biden leads from the back and is on the side of the cartels” and “as a result, he has put the safety of Americans and their communities at risk.”

This isn’t the first time Trump has promised to designate drug gangs as terrorists. He threatened to do so after a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel ambushed and killed nine American citizens in the Sierra Madre mountains in 2019. The victims were traveling to the La Mora ranch, a tight-knit community of Mormons in Mexico. Among the murdered were two 8-month-old children.

“All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations,” Trump said at the time. “Statutorily we are ready to do so.” But he held off at the request of Mexican President Lopez Obrador, “who I like and respect, and has worked so well with us.” It was only a temporary move, he explained on Twitter, in order to provide room for both nations to “step up our joint efforts to deal decisively with these vicious and ever-growing organizations!”

Obrador celebrated that decision, thanking Trump “for respecting our decisions and for choosing to maintain a policy of good neighborliness, a policy of cooperation with us.”

Republican patience has since run out, and the call to fight cartels like terrorists has hardened into something approaching political orthodoxy. In February, Republican attorneys general from 21 states sent a letter to the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the terrorists designation for the drug organizations. Noting that 100,000 Americans now die from drug overdoses annually – two thirds of them from fentanyl smuggled across the border – the state law enforcement officers noted that the cartels have built private armies to protect themselves from rival cartels and the Mexican government.

“The existence of such forces just across our southwestern land border, and the Mexican government’s inability to control them, pose a threat to our national security far greater than a typical drug-trafficking enterprise,” they said. This view has now morphed into the Republican Party’s view.

GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy told supporters on Wednesday that combatting the cartels would be a “top foreign policy priority.” The former biotech CEO has promised to use military force, unmanned drones in particular, to cut them off at the head. A spokesman for the campaign told RCP that the cartels should be “decimated,” and said Ramaswamy considers their leaders no better than “Bin Laden, Soleimani, and Al-Zawahiri.”

Mexico could be a partner in that effort – if it so desires: “As president, Vivek will call Mexican President Obrador (or the next Mexican president) in January 2025 with a clear message: We will support you in decimating the cartels.” But he told RCP that the candidate would be willing to move without Mexico’s blessing: “And if you don’t, we’ll come in and do it for you. Time to end the fentanyl crisis.”

A political newcomer, Ramaswamy is considered a longshot. But his bellicose rhetoric is increasingly in line with a bloc of the country that is fed up with the situation on the southern border. The hawks once comfortable with hurling cruise missiles in the Middle East now seem willing to fire them across the southern border.

In New Hampshire last September, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reminded voters of previous news reports that “Trump wanted to bomb Mexico.” According to Mark Esper, the previous defense secretary, Trump had asked his military advisors at least twice if he could “shoot missiles into Mexico to destroy the drug labs.”

But that idea didn’t come from the Oval Office, Pompeo said. The media had it wrong. According to Pompeo, who is considering his own bid for the presidency, “that was actually me!” He likens the border to “an ungoverned space,” not so different than Afghanistan other than being “a stone’s throw from El Paso.” The real story, he said, was how the Trump administration was considering how best to stop the cartels from moving Chinese fentanyl across the southern border and “what are the tools we might have?”

Citing the need to cut off the money supply, Pompeo told RCP that Biden “is making a clear mistake in refusing to designate Mexican cartels as a terrorist organization” and missing an opportunity to “hit them where it hurts.”

Related: U.S. Treasury Sanctions Cartel-Run Timeshare Fraud Network Targeting Americans

A spokesman for the Nikki Haley campaign told RCP that the former U.N. ambassador also supports designating cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.

Combatting cartels like terror cells would come with controversy on both sides of the border. The Mexican government has already expressed alarm at the idea, and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served in George W. Bush’s administration, warns that the move could erase established norms in the United States.

“There’s been a longstanding tradition that we don’t use our military within our borders related to enforcement matters,” he said in an interview with NewsNation, noting that even litigating something like the rules of engagement would be a thorny legal question.

“It just remains to be seen whether or not this can be sufficiently cabined in a way that won’t have the military and law enforcement falling over each other,” Gonzales continued, “that we don’t have the military battling the rights of American citizens in this country.”

But if Republicans win the White House, the next president will have made commitments to the contrary. Political momentum is already behind the idea.

“The same cartels who produce and traffic this dangerous chemical are also assassinating rivals and government officials, ambushing, and killing Americans at the border, and engaging in an armed insurgency against the Mexican government,” wrote the 21 GOP state attorneys general. “This dangerous terrorist activity occurring at our border will not abate unless we escalate our response.”

Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.

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