The “terrorist” label is a dangerous one because it very often serves to de-legitimize groups that have justifiable reasons for fighting back against their oppressors. But very often, the word so appropriately fits the perpetrator that no one disputes it. Even Osama bin Laden embraced his terrorist label after the 9/11 attacks. Now President Donald Trump says he wants to attach this powerful designation to Mexico’s violent drug cartels.
It’s about time. For too long, American presidents have danced around this diplomatically sensitive issue. If Trump is serious, he should proceed with extreme caution, and he must never confuse this label as creating any sort of authority for the United States to violate Mexico’s sovereignty in pursuit of drug-cartel terrorists.
But calling them what they are would make clear to all who support the drug trade in this country exactly what they are funding — murder, kidnappings, torture, enslavement and massive bloodshed. Among thousands of examples are last month’s bloody attack in northwestern Mexico, in which three women and six children with dual Mexican-U.S. citizenship died, and Sunday’s nearly hour-long attack near the Texas border that left at least 21 people dead.
U.S. government agencies have differing definitions of terrorism. The Foreign Relations Authorization Act identifies it as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” The FBI distinguishes terrorist violence as being motivated by a desire to advance ideological goals.
Defenders of Mexico have long argued that drug-cartel violence doesn’t constitute terrorism since all they’re trying to do is control territory and smuggling routes for financial gain. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry labels the cartels international crime organizations, not terrorist groups.
Any Mexican can testify, though, that cartel violence induces terror on a mass scale. When cartels kidnap children, murder journalists or hang opposing cartel members from overpasses, they are sending a message that their authority must not be questioned. When they bribe senior police or government officials, their goal is political control to advance their smuggling operations.
Academics disagree on whether there is an ideological motivation behind what the cartels do. Some, such as notorious convicted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, embraced a “Robin Hood” ideology to justify their violence. For others, the ideology was anarchy for the sake of personal enrichment. These groups unquestionably have left behind them a trail of terror, including tens of thousands of deaths, rivaling the worst acts committed by, say, Hezbollah or the Islamic State.
Trump has a well-known penchant for blurting out ill-considered policy decisions. If he’s serious about this designation, it should be made only after methodical study backed by sound legal justifications. But U.S. consumers of illicit drugs deserve to have their eyes opened to the real terror that makes their recreational pastime possible.