GOP senators introduce bill designating Mexican drug cartels as terror organizations

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Greg Nash
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is seen during a press conference on Thursday, March 16, 2023 to discuss the Respect for the Second Amendment Act.

A group of six GOP senators on Wednesday introduced legislation that would slap the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) label on nine separate drug cartels in Mexico.

The proposal follows weeks of tit-for-tat recriminations between some Republicans and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, mainly casting blame on the cartel violence and fentanyl crisis in Mexico and the United States.

“Despite what the President of Mexico says, drug cartels are in control of large parts of Mexico,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a press release. 

“They are making billions of dollars sending fentanyl and illicit drugs into the United States where it is killing our citizens by the thousands.”

Under the bill, dubbed the Ending the Notorious, Aggressive, and Remorseless Criminal Organizations and Syndicates (NARCOS) Act, a set list of cartels would be included in the list of FTOs that’s generally populated by State Department designations.

The bill would designate the Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco New Generation Cartel, Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas Cartel, Northeast Cartel, Juarez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Beltran-Leyva Cartel, and La Familia Michoacana, also known as the Knight Templar Cartel, as FTOs.

Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said a fixed designation list could miss smaller organizations that often change sides as larger cartels compete against each other.

“This shows one of several arguments against adding cartels to the terrorist list: they fragment, disappear, reappear, and change names all the time. You’d have to update the ‘FTO list’ every few months or else it’ll just be a historical snapshot,” said Isacson.

But Graham said the designations “will be a game-changer.” 

“We will put the cartels in our crosshairs and go after those who provide material support to them, including the Chinese entities who send them chemicals to produce these poisons. The designation of Mexican drug cartels as FTOs is a first step in the major policy changes we need to combat this evil,” said Graham.

FTO designations allow the U.S. government to sanction the foreign organizations, and they make it unlawful for anyone within the jurisdiction of the United States to “knowingly provide ‘material support or resources’ to a designated FTO,” according to the State Department.

The designations also bar members or representatives of the FTOs from entering the United States, and in certain cases renders those individuals deportable from the country, and freezes the organizations’ assets within the financial system.

While several Mexican cartels are already subject to a series of financial limitations under the Transnational Criminal Organization label and other sanctions lists managed by the Department of the Treasury, the bill’s sponsors say the FTO designation would help U.S. authorities open new fronts on the cartels.

“We need to dismantle and disincentivize Mexico’s cartels in every way possible. Designating these murderers as Foreign Terrorist Organizations would give U.S. officials more tools to use in putting the cartels and the networks that support them behind bars,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

The GOP bill also has a carve out to prevent the FTO designation from affecting regional migration.

An FTO designation of groups in Mexico could potentially open the door for certain Mexican nationals to claim asylum in the United States under current law. 

A proposal by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) earlier this month stopped just short of slapping the FTO label on cartels to avoid opening a door for Mexicans persecuted by the cartels to claim asylum in the United States.

Under the Senate proposal, the FTO designation “shall not provide a basis for any alien to obtain any withholding, deferral, relief, or protection from removal of any kind.”

Graham and Kennedy were joined by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Lindsey Graham

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