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Bloggings by Boz: Traffickers as Terrorists

MEXICO / 5 APR 2011 BY JAMES BOSWORTH EN

Houston Chronicle:

In a potentially sweeping and politically charged escalation of the U.S. offensive against Mexican drug cartels, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, introduced legislation in Congress Wednesday to designate six murderous Mexican drug cartels "foreign terrorist organizations."

Such a designation by the State Department could expose Mexican drug traffickers and U.S. gunrunners to charges of supporting terrorism.

There is a lot of opposition to the effort. Some are concerned that the designation would increase pressure for U.S. action. Others think it diminishes the designation on Al Qaeda and other "real" terrorists. Some have a philosophical difference, saying the groups don't meet the designation of terrorists because they are more interested in profit than ideology. The Calderon government dislikes the possible designation because they don't want their country to be identified with terrorism.

However, outside of the Mexican government, it may be the group most opposed to the designation will be the NRA. After all, designating Mexico's criminal organizations as terrorists could lead to some genuine crackdowns on guns flowing south to those organizations and prison sentences for gun shop owners who allow their merchandise to flow into the terrorists' hands.

Hypothetically, this legislation could also mean anyone supporting the terrorists financially or logistically could be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws as well. While this wouldn't extend to the lowest level of drug user (we don't prosecute heroin users for supporting the Taliban), it could extend into drug trafficking and money laundering networks here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the region.

Surprisingly, I find myself in agreement with Congressman McCaul, at least on the fact certain Mexican criminal groups should be on the list of terrorists. The Mexican criminal organizations do use terrorism, as I define it, as a way of advancing their economic and political goals. If the U.S. is going to have a list of terrorist groups, then the Mexican criminal organizations that use terrorism as a tactic should be on that list.

That said, we need to remember that the list of terrorist groups is a tool, not a strategy. Countering the terrorist/criminal organizations in Mexico is a very different issue from countering the other groups on that list, including Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers, the FARC and the remnants of the AUC or IRA. Placing the Mexican criminal organizations on the list of terrorists doesn't solve the problem nor does it even fully define the problem. While it has some symbolic significance, whether or not they are on that list should not impact the amount of attention given to the problem. The security problems in Mexico are important whether or not the groups meet the definition of "terrorists."

In some ways, this is an argument against the list itself. Even without the Mexican criminal groups added, the list of terrorist groups already contains a diverse set of organizations with different goals, motives and strategies under a single heading because they loosely share a set of tactics ("terrorism") for how they try to achieve their goals. This is also why the "Global War on Terrorism" was a misnomer and I'm glad current U.S. officials avoid the terminology. The list of terrorist organizations is useful from a bureaucratic sense, but it's a strategic mess.

Fighting over whether to place groups in a specific lexicon box of terrorists, criminals, insurgents, religious extremists, revolutionaries, guerrillas, gangs, etc. often masks the complex nature of the organizations. The "bad guys" (the term I often choose to use so I can avoid the lexicon fight) can fall into multiple categories at the same time. Hezbollah is at times a religious, political, social, criminal or terrorist group depending on which members are acting and what they are doing. It's worth discussing and debating the nature of the groups so that they can be understood and deconstructed, but it's not effective to demand a right or wrong answer to which specific box they are in. No group has a completely pure philosophy or operation.

So, to conclude, I think the Mexican criminal organizations should be placed on the list because they use terrorism as a tactic and it would give investigators and prosecutors additional tools to fight them. That said, I don't think their presence on the list should define the entire issue nor should it imply a change in how analysts think about the problem strategically.

(With permission from James Bosworth - Bloggings by Boz)

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