Mexican cartels subject to terrorist-level sanctions under new GOP-sponsored bill

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21 killed in gunfight between Mexican drug cartel, police near Texas border

At least 21 people killed in a gunbattle near Texas border between suspected members of the drug cartel and police; Fox News contributor Tom Homan weighs in.

The Mexican cartels are coming under increased pressure from U.S. lawmakers.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is expected to introduce on Wednesday a bill to subject certain foreign criminal organizations – namely the cartels – to the same level of sanctions as terror groups. It comes after President Trump last month announced that plans were in motion to designate the drug-trafficking enterprises south of the border as foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs.

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“Criminal organizations and drug cartels like the one responsible for last month’s attack in Mexico ought to be treated just like terrorist groups in the eyes of the U.S. government,” Cotton told Fox News in a statement, referring to the early November slaying of nine U.S. citizens from the Mormon community in the northern state of Sonora.

“This bill would help stop cartel violence by ensuring these groups, and anyone who helps them, face dire consequences for their actions,” he added.

Referred to as the Significant Transnational Criminal Organization Designation Act, the legislation – an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act – enables the federal government to impose on the most significant Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) the same sanctions that apply to FTOs.

The sanctions include prohibiting organization members and their immediate families admission to the United States, freezing assets, and seeking civil and criminal penalties against individuals providing material assistance or resources to the organization.

Moreover, the bill mandates that the president submit a report to Congress with the government’s findings on the Nov. 4, 2019 attack on U.S. citizens in northern Mexico once the investigation is completed, including whether the organization responsible should be designated a significant TCO.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., participates in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on Jan. 25, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., participates in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on Jan. 25, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The bill is sponsored by GOP Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, John Cornyn of Texas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Josh Hawley of Missouri, David Perdue of Georgia, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

The act defines “membership in a significant transnational criminal organization” as direct members and/or their spouse and child. But it carves out an exemption for those “who did not know, or should not reasonably have known, that his or her spouse or parent was a member of a significant transnational criminal organization or whom the Attorney General has reasonable grounds to believe has renounced” to such membership.

Mexican national guardsmen patrol near Bavispe, at the Sonora-Chihuahua border, Mexico, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. 

Mexican national guardsmen patrol near Bavispe, at the Sonora-Chihuahua border, Mexico, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (AP)

The bill comes at a time when cartel violence is spiking and the U.S. is battling unprecedented levels of drug-related deaths and overdoses. New Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has also vowed to go after cartels and other gangs fueling chaos at the border.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if and when Trump's FTO designation on the cartels will come to fruition, a move that has generated both praise and criticism. Terrorist designations are handled by the U.S. State Department. Once a group has been slapped with such a designation, known members are prohibited from entering the country, and it is then illegal for those in the U.S. to intentionally provide support to them. Financial institutions are also barred from doing any type of business with the organization or its members.

“The FTO designation is an important step in a positive direction for U.S. national security. Too many Americans have died as the ruthless cartels have made billions by terrorizing communities and killing at unprecedented levels. It's clear President Trump always places the safety of Americans first,” noted Derek Maltz, a former special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration Special Operations Division in New York. “Designating the cartels as terrorists and implementing a focused operational plan will save a tremendous amount of lives.”

THE IMPACT OF DESIGNATING MEXICAN CARTELS A 'FOREIGN TERRORIST ORGANIZATION'

The FTO tag could also mean that an American in an inner-city gang selling street drugs that originated from south of the border could be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws – possibly being given a life sentence.

A boy pauses as he speaks next to the coffins of Dawna Ray Langford, 43, and her sons Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, who were killed by drug cartel gunmen, during the funeral at a family cemetery in La Mora, Sonora state, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

A boy pauses as he speaks next to the coffins of Dawna Ray Langford, 43, and her sons Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, who were killed by drug cartel gunmen, during the funeral at a family cemetery in La Mora, Sonora state, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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According to the latest annual assessment from the DEA, Mexican drug trafficking organizations pose the greatest crime threat to the U.S. and are continuing to “expand their control of the opioids market” in conjunction with the deadly spike in overdoses in recent years. However, officials have also lamented that “the scope of violence generated by Mexican crime groups has been difficult to measure due to restricted reporting by the government and attempts by groups to mislead the public.”

Moreover, Mexico’s homicide rate – routinely driven by cartel-connected violence – is on the path to reaching record levels this year, even higher than the record numbers set in 2018 when more than 30,000 people were killed.

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Trump will ‘temporarily hold off’ designating Mexican cartels as terror groups

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President Trump announced Friday that he will hold off on officially designating Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations while he works with the Mexican president "to deal decisively" with the issue.

"All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations," Trump tweeted Friday. "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!"

Mexico's foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard thanked Trump on Twitter for his decision.

"I appreciate President Donald Trump's decision to postpone the designation of organizations as terrorists at the request of President López Obrador, who also respects and appreciates him," Ebrard said.

Obrador praised Trump's decision at an event Friday in his home state of Tabasco.

“I celebrate that he has taken our opinion into account,” the Mexican president said, according to The New York Times. “There has to be cooperation with respect for our sovereignties, cooperation without interventionism. And I think it was a very good decision that he took today."

Designating cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) could lead to tougher financial penalties and legal ramifications for those involved who are tried in the U.S. Once a group is designated a terrorist organization, known members are prohibited from entering the country and it is illegal for those in the U.S. to intentionally provide support. Financial institutions are barred from doing any type of business with the organization or its members. This could mean that an American selling drugs that originated south of the border could be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws, and could possibly be given a life sentence.

THE IMPACT OF DESIGNATING MEXICAN CARTELS A 'FOREIGN TERRORIST ORGANIZATION'

Dozens of cartels are known to be operating across Mexico, but it's unclear which ones will receive the FTO label.

Mexican drug cartels are currently classified as drug trafficking organizations, but their criminal activity spans far beyond illegal drug trade, involving everything from murder, fraud, gun trafficking, bribery, money laundering and counterfeit smuggling, to human trafficking and extortion.

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Amb. David Johnson, vice president of the International Narcotics Control Board, said the key difference between drug cartels and terror groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) is a profit motive versus a political motive.

“Terrorists use violence to expand a political goal. These criminals are interested in money, not politics. They don’t want the responsibility and headaches that come with political control since it could interfere with their profit-maximizing goals,” he explained. “The key reason for not labeling them terrorists is because that is not what they are. They are in it for the money. Period.”

Critics said the move could shake up bilateral relations between the U.S. and Mexico and hurt trade.

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Clamping down on illegal migrants flowing across the U.S. southern border with Mexico, which Trump claims has contributed to an influx of drugs and violent crime in border states, has been a part of his agenda since the beginning of his administration. Efforts have been ramped up after the brutal killings of six children and three women with dual Mexican and American citizenship in the Mormon community of La Mora on Nov. 4. At the time, Trump called on Mexico to "wage war" on the cartels.

Fox News' Hollie McKay contributed to this report.

Original Article