WASHINGTON – Mexico’s Foreign Ministry is requesting a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after President Donald Trump told former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly he planned to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.
“Mexico will never allow any actions that violate its national sovereignty. We will be firm. I have let the United States know my position, as well as our plan against organized transnational crime,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted in a statement Tuesday night.
“Mutual respect is the basis of cooperation.”
In an interview released Tuesday on Bill O’Reilly’s website, Trump said his administration had been working to label drug cartels operating in Mexico as terrorist organizations over the last 90 days, but it was unclear when that might happen.
“I will be designating the cartels – absolutely,” he said. “You know designation is not that easy. You have to go through a process and we’re well into that process.”
O’Reilly phrased the question in military terms, asking whether the president would use drones to attack the cartels. Butunder U.S. law, a foreign group designated as a terrorist organization can be subjected to special sanctions, including freezing any U.S. assets and prohibiting other entities or people in the country where the group is located from knowingly offering support.
Nearly 70 groups have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations, according to the State Department. The list includes groups such as al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the 2001 terror attacks, and the Islamic State.
The president told O’Reilly that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has rebuffed Trump’s offer to send assistance.
“I’ve actually offered him to let us go in and clean it out and he so far has rejected the offer,” Trump told O’Reilly.
Earlier this month Trump spoke with Obrador about U.S. assistance after the ambush killings of nine Americans – three mothers and their young children – in Mexico. Relatives believe the attack may have been a case of mistaken identity by rival drug cartels.
In a Tuesday statement, the Foreign Ministry said it would seek dialogue on plans for the designation – along with the issue of U.S. weapons being smuggled into Mexico.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sought a softer posture, telling the nation Wednesday, “I want to send a hug to the American people. It’s not a good time for confrontational politics. … Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.”
“I want to tell my people, the Mexican people … there’s nothing to fear,” he added.
Obrador was elected into office on hopes he’d help curb Mexico’s endemic problem with drug-related violence. He’d argued his predecessor fell short of dismantling drug cartels.Last year, Mexico’s homicides, many of which were linked to drug cartels, hit a new high of nearly 36,000, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. The trend continued in 2019 with almost 90 murders daily, the report said. A U.S. government study in March traced more than 150,000 firearms from Mexican criminals back to U.S. gun sellers and factories.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said while there are important distinctions between terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations, it’s “certainly worth thinking about what a Congressional authorization of force would look like.”
“What is immediately clear right now is the fact that the Mexican government needs to redouble its partnership with American intelligence and law enforcement agencies to wage a full-scale offensive against the cartels that are running the show in certain parts of northern Mexico,” he said.
Trump has floated the idea of designating drug cartels in Mexico as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) before. In a March interview with Breitbart, Trump said he considering labeling cartels, or factions of cartels, as terror groups.
“We’re thinking about doing it very seriously. In fact, we’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
“It’s psychological, but it’s also economic,” Trump said. “As terrorists – as terrorist organizations, the answer is yes. They are.”
Trump’s comments appeared to come as a surprise as Ebrard dismissed U.S. plans for designating drug cartels as terror groups on Monday. The foreign minister suggested Mexico might retaliate for such a move.
“I don’t think the United States will pursue this path because we’re working together, and I don’t think they would want to open up the possibility of Mexico invoking the same legal principles,” he said.
Subramanian, Fritze and Jackson cover the White House for USA TODAY. Follow them at @cmsub, @jfritze and @djusatoday.