Richard Miles
"What Trump said creates the impression that there would be military actions in Mexico"
The implications of designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. LPO spoke with security specialist Richard Miles about the president's latest statement.

On November 4, nine members of the Mexican-American Lebarón family - among them six children - were murdered in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. This tragedy once again put the new security strategy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador's government at the center of the debate, but as the victims were U.S. citizens, it further complicated the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States.

Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced that he would look to label Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations on the State Department's list. To understand the implications such a definition would have on both nations, LPO consulted Richard Miles, senior associate of the Program for the Americas of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Miles was part of the National Security Council in George W. Bush's White House and a member of the team which developed the Merida Initiative. His expertise in security matters is extensive and spans twenty years between the Department of State and as an intelligence officer in the US Army.

[The failures and successes of the Merida Initiative: the bilateral plan that promised to end violence]

Could you explain to us what is the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO)?

According to U.S. law basically it's a process by the State Department, with the Department of Justice and the Treasury. They designate an organization as a terrorist organization subject to all sorts of financial controls.

What do you think of President Donald Trump's decision to include Mexican drug cartels in this list?

The problem in this case is that, according to the definition in the US law, a terrorist organization is a group that engages in premeditated politically motivated violence. The drug cartels are different. There are now roughly 60 or 70 organization on the FTO list and all of them are either Islamic fundamentalist groups, or Marxist groups, or even communist groups like Shining Path.

As far as I know none of them are just criminal groups. Some of those FTOs engage also in crime, but they all have some political ideology of some sort. I think that would be the real controversy in the U.S. This would be the first time a purely criminal organization with no political ideology would be designated as a terrorist organization.

In terms of strategy to deal with these criminal organizations, what does this mean?

The primary advantage is financial. It gives them more legal abilities to go after terrorists' finances. For example, any bank in the United States or any bank subject to its jurisdiction, if they were found to have any accounts related to any of this groups, they would immediately have to report that to the Treasury and that money would be frozen. The financing part would become much easier for U.S. authorities. The other thing is the material support. Any individual or organization that gives any money to the cartels in any way, shape or form, those people could also be charged with a crime in the United States. Anyone that provided, say, a house or a car, they could be prosecuted in the U.S. Those are the advantages that this designation gives to US authorities.

Trump said 'cartels have cost thousands of American lives because of drug addiction'. That's going to be a problem because U.S. law says it must be politically motivated violence. Drug addiction and drug trafficking doesn't meet the standard of the law

There are concerns in Mexico that this could turn into a military intervention. Are these justifiable fears?

Well the problem here is the way President Trump has talked about this. He hasn't talked about this referring to the funding. He said "cartels have cost thousands of American lives because of drug addiction". That's going to be a problem because U.S. law says it must be politically motivated violence. Drug addiction and drug trafficking doesn't meet the standard of the law. But he has also said that he offered President López Obrador "let us go and clean it out". President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rejected the offer. It certainly sounds like military action coming from the mouth of Trump himself. I can see how Mexicans would be worried about some sort of military action.

I personally don't see that happening because simply we already have good cooperation with Mexican security authorities, and we are already seeing a new way to combating the cartels under the mechanism that we have with the Merida Initiative and so on. The way Trump has talked about this certainly creates the impression that there would be some military actions, but I think it is primarily financial.

If this designation goes forward, would it mean that President Trump would not need Congressional authorization to launch a military intervention on Mexican soil?

Well, yeah, that's a good point. If you were to designate an organization as a terrorist organization, U.S. law already gives the president existing authority to go conduct a raid and that sort of thing. That's embedded, I think, in the authorization of military force from 2001. Legislation that, again, was targeted at groups like Al-Qaeda. That would in theory give the president the authority to go after these groups unilaterally, I just don't think the U.S. would actually do that because we already have very good cooperation with the Mexicans to do precisely that, to go after high-value targets.

And the authorities are reevaluating that strategy because they realize that it doesn't really work. Both sides, in Mexico and the United States, it has not reduced the violence and it doesn't really solve the underlying problem. But you're right, in theory, under this designation the president can say ‘you know, we're going to take out that leader with or without Mexicans agreeing'.

Mexico's Secretary of Defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval (front) and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

He could, say, order a drone strike on Mexican territory.

Well, again, this is where it could become an issue. The U.S. Congress can't block the FTO designation, but the courts can review it. Somebody acting on behalf of the cartels could file a suit in a U.S. court to revert the designation and the courts would review it. It would come down to if -for example- the attack on the Lebarón family, was that politically motivated, or was it simply they got in the way of the traffickers. That's where the argument would occur. I think it would be disastrous for our existing cooperation with Mexico, to do something like that unilaterally. It would destroy decades of very good cooperation with Mexico.

What do you think is the position of the U.S. national security establishment on this issue?

People in the military and in Homeland Security, people that have worked with Mexican authorities, I think they would advise very strongly against taking unilateral military action. Because they have had such a good relationship with the Mexicans. Again, he is the president and he could order something like that without listening to his advisers. And he doesn't help himself by statements that imply unilateral action.

[Was the DEA Involved in the Failed Detention of El Chapo's Son? Trump Called AMLO After the Culiacán Crisis]

What do you think of President López Obrador's security strategy?

Well, I'm not sure there is a strategy. Clearly, as I mentioned, there's a lot of dissatisfaction on the Mexican and the U.S. side in terms of what has the high-value target strategy achieved, and it has not been impressive in terms of the reduction of violence. There is already a consensus that we needed to move to something else, and among those things was going after financials.

But the Mexican government hasn't done that.

They haven't. So, the problem is, it's one of those issues where you can't pull back the military with nothing in its place. By reducing the role of the military in Mexico but without replacing it with another tool, you send a signal to the cartels that they can be much more aggressive and there would be very little push back. I think that's what we saw in Culiacan. They sense there was a vacuum in terms of policy on the Mexican side, and I'm afraid we're going to see more of that if López Obrador doesn't come out with a very strong replacement strategy. I think they're going to get challenged more.

Going after the money is a pretty effective strategy. That means that instead of sending soldiers to burn poppy fields, you're sending accountants and investigators to the banks and you're scrutinizing bank accounts linked to that. The U.S. found that doing that with terrorist organizations and criminals its pretty effective

How would that strategy look like? What can the Mexican government do to fight cartels without going to the old high-value targets strategy? Without capturing drug lords.

I think going after the money is a pretty effective strategy. That means that instead of sending soldiers to burn poppy fields, you're sending accountants and investigators to the banks and you're scrutinizing bank accounts linked to that. The U.S. found that doing that with terrorist organizations and criminals its pretty effective.

Once they have no money it's hard to do business. My understanding is that a lot can be done on that front. The U.S. could provide a lot of technical assistant on how to do that legally and effectively. That could bear some fruit. But you still must have some sort of military strategy so that you don't simply give up, or you can't fight back when they siege entire cities. You need the ability to respond. But going after high-value targets by itself... it doesn't work.

Aftermath of the attack against the Lebarón family in northern Mexico.

Why do you think the Lopez Obrador administration has not gone after the money?

Well... I don't know, to be honest. Unfortunately, a lot of people -publicly powerful people- would be implicated. I think he may not want to dig too deeply on that front. The other part is, I don't know what their technical capacity is, or the advice that he's getting in his government and whether he thinks that would be either too hard, or that it would take too much cooperation with the United States on banking... I don't know.

How do you think this is going to play out in the bilateral relationship?

I think this is going to be a real test of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. With president Trump, it can go either way from one day to the next, but we're in for a few difficult weeks, if not months. If this classification goes through, and the U.S. starts considering unilateral security actions, that's going to be a very serious challenge to U.S.-Mexican relations. Because that's the one area where it's been a good story, the bilateral relationship, as opposed to trade. So, if that blows up, I think we're in for a rough couple of years, or at least as long as president Trump is president. 

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