Mexican Drug Cartels Are Not Terrorists

By Robert Valencia

While a few U.S. politicians have long demanded that Mexico’s most bloodthirsty drug cartel, the Zetas, be named a terrorist organization, an alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil by Iranian government agents allied with the Zetas has only intensified the issue.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that Latin American drug cartels like The Zetas should be treated as terrorist organizations while Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) added that the Mexican cartels are seeking to use terrorist activities to “further their cause.” In February, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano already accused al-Qaida and Zetas of “joining forces” to attack the U.S.

But despite the alleged Iran-Zetas connection, having the U.S. State Department label the Zetas a terrorist organization solves nothing. The addition of the Zetas to that list won’t stop cartels from running the drug market nor from establishing international ties. Furthermore, unlike terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida, these cartels’ goals do not include attacking the U.S. The Zeta cartel’s motive is money, not ideology.

For years now, drug cartels have threatened the Mexican population and law enforcement. They’ve committed crimes against humanity like the Monterrey casino arson in September. They’ve also been responsible for a gruesome death count that ranges from 40,000 to upwards of 53,000. Yet labeling them as terrorist organizations won’t make a difference, and it could drag both countries into murky diplomatic waters because Mexico rejects any sort of U.S military intervention despite rampant violence. The Mexican government instead advocates for greater cooperation with the U.S. in order to curb drug trade and violence. President Felipe Calderón has repeatedly asked the United States to do more in addressing the demand side of the drug trade.

Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society has pointed out that a terrorist designation only works for government organizations or groups that diffuse propaganda or defend a religion—like al-Qaida or Hamas—or seek some type of international legitimacy like Colombia’s FARC does in South America and Europe in order to be recognized as a political movement. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s approach won’t deter Zetas and other Mexican drug cartels from controlling the drug market nor establishing international ties (such as the most recent connection of former Colombian army members who have been training Zetas members in command and intelligence operations), because they are running a successful mafia and are already subject to tough organized crime laws—including the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act that allows U.S. government to impose economic sanctions on drug trafficking organizations.

Unlike terrorist organizations like al-Qaida that are running into economic and manpower hardship due to asset forfeiture, the Zetas already profit from the multibillion-dollar drug industry; increasingly recruit common criminals and gang members to exert terror across Mexico and Central America; and also rake in the cash through human trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigrants who attempt to enter the U.S. have to pay as much as $30,000 per head while at the same time risking their own lives at the hands of Zetas members.

While direct involvement from the Iranian government with drug cartels seems shocking, Iran-sponsored terrorist organizations have already gained footing in Latin America. Hezbollah has been in the tripartite borders of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay since the mid-1980s, where they have established a safe haven for fundraising, money laundering, and other terrorist-oriented activities.

U.S. authorities have also thwarted several Hezbollah operations in Latin America, including a two-year investigation that led to the end of a Colombian cocaine smuggling and money laundering ring that financed the Lebanese Shiite militia in 2008. In July 2010, Jameel Nasr, a Hezbollah operative, was arrested in Mexico for attempting to establish connections between Lebanon-based commanders and South American crime organizations.

Still, many experts are not buying the so-called Quds-Zetas connection. Writer and journalist Sergio González Rodríguez believes that the way U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder framed the story is more of a plot by the U.S. intelligence to place political pressure on Mexico and impose military deployment on the border, which Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has already suggested. Others like author José Reveles and Autonomous University of Mexico professor Raúl Benitez say that Mexican drug cartels would never attack the United States, because this could spark an unwanted military response from the White House.

U.S. intelligence consulting firms like Stratfor, meanwhile, question Holder’s accusation because such connection couldn’t have existed without us knowing. The CIA, FBI, and other agencies are deeply embedded in Latin America—particularly Mexico. The U.S. agencies cooperate in tandem with local authorities and informants to detect any anti-U.S. organizations on Latin American soil, and work to infiltrate dangerous drug rings. Instead of seeking alliances with visible Islamic organizations, Stratfor goes on, the Zetas prefer to focus on other challenges posed by other drug cartels that pursue to control the drug market and human trafficking at the border.

Certainly, the Mexican drug lords need no Iran or Islamic terrorist organizations to operate in the U.S. because the cartels have been present across the country for several years. Their burgeoning business and activities will not cease whether or not American legislators call them terrorists, but it could hurt U.S.-Mexico relations and risk any security cooperation if Congress contemplates the placement of U.S. troops into Mexican soil as Governor Perry has suggested.


Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user DrJohnBullas]

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