By Jonathan Landay and Frank Jack Daniel
WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico on Wednesday rejected “interventionism” after U.S. President Donald Trump said he will designate the Latin American nation’s cartels as terrorist organizations, while a former U.S. official warned of unintended outcomes from such a move.
Designating groups as foreign terrorist organizations is aimed at disrupting their finances through the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on them and individuals and entities that support them.
Trump said in comments broadcast on Tuesday that Mexico’s cartels “will” be designated.
A growing chorus of conservative voices in the United States has called for Mexican cartels to be classified as terrorist groups after the killing in Mexico earlier this month of nine American mothers and children with dual Mexican nationality.
Speaking in an interview with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump said he had been working for 90 days on the process, which he said was necessary to stop drug traffickers whose products kills tens of thousands of Americans
However, Mexico has warned it could respond in kind to such a move, while immigration lawyers said calling traffickers terrorists could in some cases make Mexicans eligible for asylum.
A former State Department official who ran the foreign terrorist designation process said applying that status to purely criminal organizations would damage bilateral relations, cause economic harm and risk degrading the program.
It would also provide mostly “symbolic” benefits to the United States, Jason Blazakis, who oversaw designation process at the State Department’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau until last year, told Reuters.
“You are blurring the lines between criminality and terrorism and that is extremely problematic” he said.
“Where would you stop?” he said, adding that dozens of criminal gangs around the world could become eligible for the same status.
The U.S. State Department includes dozens of organizations on its list of terrorist groups. Most are Islamist, separatist or Marxist insurgents. In Latin America, left-wing guerrilla and right-wing paramilitaries, both involved in drug trafficking, have in the past appeared on the list.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Mexico would take up the issue with the United States after the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday and that he had asked his foreign minister to lead talks.
“Cooperation, yes, intervention, no,” Lopez Obrador said in a morning news conference when asked about Trump’s comments.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said all talks would seek to defend Mexican sovereignty, a sensitive issue in a country that lost a large part of its territory in a war with the United States in the 1800s.
Ebrard earlier said a terrorist designation could, under U.S. law, enable the United States to act directly against the threat if it chose.
Trump has repeatedly offered military assistance, but Mexico has consistently declined such an offer. It was not clear under what legal basis, if any, the United States could intervene unilaterally.
Ebrard also suggested that such a move would be countered by Mexico with an equivalent legal response.
Mexico has already opened the door to such a response, by earlier in the year classifying a mass-shooting in El Paso in which Mexican citizens died as terrorism against Mexicans.
Designating Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations could have ramifications for Mexican immigration cases that would be “horribly complicated,” said Washington D.C.-based immigration attorney Steven Schulman.
The U.S. government has long argued that Mexicans fleeing drug cartel violence do not qualify for U.S. asylum since the cartels are criminal organizations working purely for economic gain but designating them as terrorists could change that and bolster some claims for refuge.
Confusing matters, the designation could also end up barring people who have had any kind of contact with the cartels, including relatives of cartel members with no criminal history or anyone who paid an extortion fee or was coerced into aiding them in some way, however minor, said Schulman.
U.S. laws ban immigration by anyone who has provided “material support” to terrorists under rules known as the Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds, unless they are granted exemptions.
“Every asylum interview of a Mexican would have a separate examination of their interaction with the cartels,” said Schulman. The designation would also raise questions about whether to include Central American gangs, whose brutality Trump has often highlighted, he said.
“You start pulling the strings on this one and you can see how quickly everything comes unraveled.”
Experts foresee more pressure from Trump over Mexican drug gangs in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, echoing his earlier use of tariff threats to persuade Mexico to clamp down on illegal immigration.
Trump said Lopez Obrador, whom he considered “a good man,” had declined his previous offers to “let us go in and clean it out.”
“But as some point something has to be done,” he said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington; Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Dave Graham, Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman)