By Simon CARON
On November 5th, 2019, in a gruesome statement from Mexican drug cartel, nine United States (US) citizens from a Mormon community in the north of Mexico, were ambushed and killed. International reactions were fast to condemn, and US President Trump twitted that if requested, he would support Mexican authorities with US military to “clean out these monsters […] quickly and effectively”. Concurrently, Trump indicated that he was considering designating Mexican Drug Cartels’ Foreign Terrorist Organization, granting US government more leeway in prosecuting and hindering Cartels.
However, in a surprising plot twist, and following a conversation with his Mexican counterpart, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), Trump went over his remarks and decided to halt his project of labeling Mexican Cartels as terrorist organizations. This article will analyse this unusual relationship and dive into the reasons that have motivated this seemingly unexpected decision.
United States distinctive relationship with Mexico
From sworn enemies to indisputable economic allies, the US-Mexico’s relationship has considerably evolved throughout time and was significantly improved with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed between Canada, US and Mexico. This relationship was further strengthened by several bilateral partnerships, such as: The Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research, the Binational Infrastructure Coordination, or Binational Cooperation in Justice Procurement. As part of these treaties, the Merida Initiative was created as a partnership between US and Mexican law enforcement agencies to combat transnational criminal organization, protecting human rights and solidifying border cooperation. This initiative is mostly financed by the American government and in that respect, the killing of nine American citizens demonstrates a failure from the Mexican authority to protect citizens against cartels’ violence.
In Trump’s view, Mormons are the embodiment of his conservative and electoral base, and as such, inaction is not an option. In addition, according to the 2018 drug threat assessment of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Mexican criminal organisation poses the greatest drug threat to the United States. Hence, designating Mexican drug cartels has foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) comes as a solution that showcase a concrete response. As highlighted in Laura Puccio’s US policy to bring terrorists to justice, once designated FTO, US government intervention reaches beyond US borders:
“The US Supreme Court ruled that any action falling under the Patriot Act, such as a financial transfer or assistance to a terrorist organisation, is punishable regardless of the existence of criminal intent. Some measures may also be applied to non-US citizens through extraterritorial jurisdiction.”
Within this construct, Mexican Cartels and any persons aiding or assisting them would be subject to indirect US intervention in terms of US Treasury Department freezing their financial assets. Furthermore, when analysing the FTO list, it is noteworthy to point out that more than half of the terrorist organization were subject to US military interventions (special forces raids, drone strikes, etc.). Therefore, being designated FTO leads to an assured indirect US government involvement and possible direct kinetic actions in another nation’s territory; both approaches presenting sovereignty issues for Mexican authorities.
AMLO’s Mexico – the fight against corruption
Since he assumed office in December 2018, AMLO and his political formation, Movimiento Regeneracion Nacional (National Regeneration Movement) have vowed for drastic political changes with their number one priority being the fight against corruption. Promises were made to better the country, and an array of reforms promoting anti-corruption measures, human right protections, counternarcotic efforts, to name a few, were put forward.
In terms of population general safety, AMLO’s Public Security Plan was designed with the intent of softening the government response to criminal gangs by rethinking the national security strategy and reorient the armed forces. The plan calls for a less militarized approach, emphasizing on education, financial aid, allowances and drug treatments, with the end state of ending the war on narcotics with “hugs not bullets”. His plan focuses on three major objectives:
- Regional coordination – improve interagency communication;
- Operational guidelines – crime prevention, participation of civil society, rethinking intelligence sharing; and
- Creation of National Guard – 50,000 new recruits trained in civil protection.
One year later, and notwithstanding reforms, AMLO’s National Guard of brand-new recruits, his solution to improve security, did not materialize and is currently composed of Navy and Federal Police serving members, an action perceived by some analysts as futile. Moreover, concrete actions seem to be lacking and the security situation in Mexico has worsened to a level where new specialized criminal groups, focused in extortion, kidnapping or human trafficking, have emerged. To make matters worse, two weeks prior to the Mormons’ killing, 13 police officers died after apprehending Ovidio Guzmán, the son of Joaquin Guzmán (El Chapo), in a spectacular shootout that caught world’s attention:
“In a now-notorious incident in October, hundreds of gunmen from the Sinaloa cartel overpowered security forces in the Sinaloa state capital Culiacán, taking troops hostage and eventually forcing the government to release a captured cartel leader Ovidio Guzmán.”
Consequently, Mexican authorities’ lack of proper response and failure to contain Cartel’s illicit activities have brought the security situation to its lowest. AMLO’s plan seems to have been unsuccessful at reducing or circumventing the overall violence, and conversely shown the world Mexico’s inability to deal with criminal local problems. As a result, Trump’s intent to designate Mexican Cartels’ FTO would be the consecration of AMLO political inability to establish security in his country. In short, American involvement would not only be perceived as foreign interventionism, it would directly impact AMLO’s political vital interest, putting at stake his legacy, exposing his incompetency and severely reducing his successor’s chances of winning the 2024 elections.
Trump – the upper hand
Trump effectively used the current instability and insecurity to its advantage, by offering AMLO no choice but to concede him a win. Insofar, Trump contemplates a win-win scenario, on one hand, he could declare Mexican Cartels’ FTO, and reassure his southern voting base, as he claimed on Twitter “All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations”. On the other hand, he could use the FTO as a lever to have bargaining power in negotiations for his US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and ultimately close the deal before the US 2020 elections.
AMLO’s options are far less optimistic, Trump’s FTO designation threatens Mexico’s vital interest: it’s right of self governance. Consequently, if he let the US mingling in his State affairs, it will show the Mexican people and the world his absence of leadership and jeopardize the very fabric of the Mexican governance. AMLO played the only card he could and made a plea to persuade Trump not to go ahead with his plan. As a result, after the conversation Trump twitted:
“However, at the request of a man who I like and respect, and has worked so well with us, President Andres Manuel […] we will temporarily hold off this designation and step up our joint efforts to deal decisively with these vicious and ever-growing organizations! ”
AMLO’s response to Trump was candid, thanking him for understanding the importance of foreign non-intervention into Mexican’s state affairs. But nothing comes for free, and by temporarily accepting not to designate Mexican Cartels’ FTO, Trump certainly asked AMLO for guarantees. As such, and although AMLO had rejected the USMCA two days prior his phone call with Trump, on December 9th, he urged Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House of Representative, to have the treaty signed before the US elections. The following day, he spoke with both the Canadian Prime Minister and the US President, to let them know his approval of the deal. Hereby, in an unprecedented tour-de-force, Trump succeeded in manipulating Mexico’s future while giving the impression that the Mexican President was able to persuade him not to interfere in his state.
 Trump. (2019a). Donald J. Trump on Twitter: “….Monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively. The great new President of Mexico has made this a big issue, but the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!” / Twitter. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from Twitter website: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1191708086140047361
 Secretaría de Economía. (2019). Comercio Exterior / Países con Tratados y Acuerdos firmados con México / América del Norte / Asuntos Bilaterales Mex-EU. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from Gob.mx website: http://www.gob.mx/se/documentos/comercio-exterior-paises-con-tratados-y-acuerdos-firmados-con-mexico-america-del-norte-asuntos-bilaterales-mex-eu?state=published
 U.S Department of State. (2019). U.S. Relations With Mexico. Retrieved December 14, 2019, from United States Department of State website: https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-mexico/
 Enten, H. (2019). Trump’s base is very different than the swing voters he’ll need in 2020. Retrieved December 14, 2019, from CNN website: https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/13/politics/trump-swing-voters-2020/index.html
 DEA Headquarters. (2018). DEA releases 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment [US Government]. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from Drug Enforcement Administration website: https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2018/11/02/dea-releases-2018-national-drug-threat-assessment-0
 Puccio, L. (2015). Retrieved December 13, 2019, from US policy to bring terrorists to justice website: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2015/564384/EPRS_BRI%282015%29564384_EN.pdf
 U.S House of Representatives. (2019). 8 USC 1189: Designation of foreign terrorist organizations. Retrieved December 14, 2019, from Office of the Law Revision Counsel website: https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title8-section1189&num=0&edition=prelim
 Rollins, J. W. (2019). Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Congressional Research Service, 2.
   Wilson Center. (2019). Infographic: AMLO’s Peace and Security Plan. Retrieved December 14, 2019, from Wilson Center website: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/infographic-amlos-peace-and-security-plan
  O’Neil, S. (2019). AMLO’s ‘Hugs Not Bullets’ Is Failing Mexico. Retrieved December 13, 2019, from Council on Foreign Relations website: https://www.cfr.org/blog/amlos-hugs-not-bullets-failing-mexico-1
 Holman, J. (2019). Can President AMLO’s National Guard tame violence in Mexico? Retrieved December 14, 2019, from Al Jazeera website: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/06/president-amlos-national-guard-tame-violence-mexico-190602104047825.html
 BBC News. (2019, November 27). US to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorists. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50568812
  Trump, D. J. (2019b, December 6). All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations. Statutorily we are ready to do so. However, at the request of a man who I like and respect, and has worked so well with us, President Andres Manuel @LopezObrador_ we will temporarily hold off this designation and step up our joint efforts to deal decisively with these vicious and ever-growing organizations! [Tweet]. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from @realDonaldTrump website: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1203096598462504961
 Manuel, A. (2019a, December 5). Buena reunión con el fiscal general de Estados Unidos, William Barr. Como abogado comprende que nuestra Constitución nos obliga a ceñirnos a los principios de cooperación para el desarrollo y a la no intervención en política exterior. De este modo siempre podremos trabajar juntospic.twitter.com/rR37JoBgZA [Tweet]. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from @lopezobrador_ website: https://twitter.com/lopezobrador_/status/1202682089063288834
Hablé por teléfono con Justin Trudeau, primer ministro de Canadá y con Donald Trump, presidente de Estados Unidos. A los dos les agradecí su valiosa participación y apoyo para aprobar el T-MEC y la distinción de que sea en nuestro país donde se firme el documento correspondiente. pic.twitter.com/Q71rP35j2M— Andrés Manuel (@lopezobrador_) December 10, 2019
 Morales, A., & Canchola, A. (2019, December 3). La Mañanera. Qué dijo AMLO sobre propuesta de EU en el TMEC. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from El Universal website: https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/la-mananera-que-dijo-amlo-sobre-propuesta-de-eu-en-el-tmec
 Flores, S. (2019). AMLO urge a Pelosi a aprobar T-MEC antes de elecciones en EU. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from https://www.milenio.com/politica/amlo-urge-pelosi-aprobar-t-mec-elecciones-eu
 Manuel, A. (2019b, December 10). Hablé por teléfono con Justin Trudeau, primer ministro de Canadá y con Donald Trump, presidente de Estados Unidos. A los dos les agradecí su valiosa participación y apoyo para aprobar el T-MEC y la distinción de que sea en nuestro país donde se firme el documento correspondiente.pic.twitter.com/Q71rP35j2M [Tweet]. Retrieved December 15, 2019, from @lopezobrador
 (Trump, 2019a)
 (Secretaría de Economía, 2019)
 (U.S Department of State, 2019)
 (Enten, 2019)
 (DEA Headquarters, 2018)
 (Puccio, 2015)
 (U.S House of Representatives, 2019)
 (Rollins, 2019)
 (Wilson Center, 2019)
 (O’Neil, 2019)
 (Wilson Center, 2019)
 (Holman, 2019)
 (O’Neil, 2019)
 (BBC News, 2019)
 (Trump, 2019b)
 (Manuel, 2019a)
 (Morales & Canchola, 2019)
 (Flores, 2019)
 (Manuel, 2019b)