Escalating Cartel Violence Demands a U.S. Response

The horrific murders of nine American women and children in Mexico last week has left the country reeling—and exposed Mexico as a cartel-led, warlord state that is an increasing threat to U.S. national security.

The daylight attack occurred less than 100 miles from the Arizona border in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. Women and children were ambushed while driving in their cars, their bodies riddled with bullets. Six-month-old twin babies were burned alive, charred beyond recognition. The remaining children scattered, the wounded hiding while others trekked 14 miles to find help. According to the survivors, one child was shot in the back while running away.

It remains unclear what, exactly, prompted the attack. Authorities speculate the shootings were linked to an ongoing gang war, and may have been a case of mistaken identity. 

Either way, the ambush is just the latest, brutally violent episode in a brutally violent country evolving increasingly into a gangland. 

Last month, hundreds of gunmen belonging to the Sinaloa cartel launched over a dozen separate attacks on Mexican security forces after they arrested the son of drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. Driving custom armored vehicles and bearing military-grade weapons, cartel gunman led an eight-hour battle that ended, stunningly, with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announcing the military would stand down and release El Chapo’s son. 

That same week, 14 Mexican police officers were brutally massacred by gunmen linked to an active cartel. In August, 19 bodies were found hanging from an overpass or dismembered in the western state of Michoacan. Three weeks later, gang members blocked all the exits in a bar in Coatzacoalcos before setting fire to it, burning 26 people alive. Homicides in Mexico this year are on track to surpass last year’s record of just over 29,000.

The Mexican State Is Failing

American policymakers have never taken seriously the thought that they might someday have to deal with a failed state at their southern border. But that is increasingly becoming the case as Mexico descends into a state of rival warlords, with massive territory and industry controlled by insurgent cartels who answer to no one.

The nominal government of Mexico, led by President López Obrador, is both powerless and unwilling to stop them. López Obrador claims that a war on the cartels is useless; that only tackling the “root cause” of crime and violence, such as poverty, can be effective. 

To boot, the president of one of the world’s most violent countries campaigned on a slogan of “hugs, not gunshots.” He also advocated cartel amnesty in 2017. 

In other words, Mexico is not serious about tackling its growing warlord problem. So it’s time for the United States to take defensive actions. 

Designate the Cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations

An immediate first step should be to designate the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, which would effectively cut off their resources and funding from external sources, prevent their members and affiliates from entering the United States, and allow the Department of Treasury to freeze their assets.

The impact of just this small change would be significant, given how intertwined the cartels have become with the Mexican state.  

John Daniel Davidson, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, recently explained the extent of it:

Many Mexican elites, whether state governors or federal officials in Mexico City, are caught up in cartel activities by virtue of the cartels’ involvement in a wide array of commercial activities that go well beyond drug trafficking. Over the past decade, the cartels have branched out into oil and gas theft, industrial agriculture, offshore commercial fishing, and most recently, the mass smuggling of Central American migrants to the southwest U.S. border, an enterprise that generates billions annually.

These activities are carried out with at least some blessing of Mexican officials—as seen by the levels of government corruption that are occasionally exposed

Targeted sanctions, similar to the ones we apply around the world to countries like Iran and Venezuela, would directly target the corruption and resources that are the lifeblood of cartel activity.

As Davidson pointed out, “members of the Mexican elite enjoy and to some extent rely upon American banks and financial institutions to manage their wealth. They send their children to elite American universities, they own real estate in America, and often travel here for health care.”

Giving the United States the ability to cut off resources to the Mexican elite who patronize the cartels will deal them a body blow, cutting off access to a shadow economy and limiting the ability of cartels to spread their networks. It’s a small lift for a significant outcome.

U.S. Representative Chip Roy (R-Texas) has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to take this step, and, along with Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) recently sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urging him to take action on the designation.

“Beheadings on camera. Human beings dissolved in sulfuric acid. Bodies hacked to pieces and strewn along the highway. Innocent people left for dead in the street,” Roy reiterated in a recent op-ed explaining the need to take action.

But the House of Representatives has spent over five weeks pursuing a likely ill-fated impeachment inquiry. Substantive legislation, even something that would seem as common-sensical as this, is given little attention by the House Democrats, whose party controls the floor schedule.

Meanwhile, the horrific violence in Mexico creeps ever closer to the United States, as the country descends further into bloody chaos. “Our backyard is on fire,” Roy wrote. “It’s time we grab the fire hose.”

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About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.

Photo: Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images

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