FederalImmigration & BorderA Closer Look at President Trump’s Designation of Mexican Cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations

Last week, President Trump announced his intentions to designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Here's a deeper dive into what that means and how it happens.
December 4, 2019
In an interview last week, President Trump announced his intentions to designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), just weeks after nine Americans were ambushed and gunned down less than 100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border by cartel members.

After the president said he was considering designating Mexican cartels as FTOs in February, Texas Rep. Chip Roy (TX-R-21) supported by other members of the Texas delegation introduced legislation intended to do just that.

According to the Department of State, the FTO designation is granted by the Secretary of State in accordance with section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) as a means of helping to fight terrorism by “curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to get out of the terrorism business.”

The Bureau of Counterterrorism within the State Department (CT) monitors foreign organizations known to be connected to terrorist activities, including engaging in, planning, and preparing attacks. 

In addition, the CT carries the responsibility of identifying potential targets for designation based on capability and intent to conduct terrorist activities.

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After the CT identifies a potential FTO designation and demonstrates that the foreign organization in question engages in or is capable of terrorist activity through a detailed record, the Secretary of State in partnership with the Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury then decides whether or not to grant the designation.

If the designation is granted, Congress is notified and given one week to review under the terms of the INA. 

The designation officially takes effect when published to the Federal Register provided Congress does not vote to block the designation within the allotted time frame. 

An entity legally fits the criteria for FTO designation under the terms of the INA if it:

  • Is a foreign organization,
  • Engages in terrorist activity as defined in the INA, or
  • Threatens the national security of the United States or U.S. nationals through terrorist activities.

In effect, the FTO designation authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to freeze all assets and block financial transactions conducted by the terrorist organization. 

Additionally, the designation restricts the ability of foreign organizations and their affiliates to travel to the United States and makes it illegal to provide resources to the terrorist organization. 

The designation also has foreign policy implications, as it stigmatizes terrorist organizations, brings awareness to other nations of the dangers of said terrorist organizations, and helps to curb terrorism financing internationally by encouraging other countries to also consider designating organizations as such.

FTO designations can be revoked by the Secretary of State under three circumstances:

  • The Secretary of State finds that the circumstances for FTO designation have changed,
  • The Secretary of State finds that in the national security interest of the United States, the designation should be removed, or
  • The Secretary of State chooses to revoke the designation.

More than 60 foreign organizations, the majority of which are radical Islamic groups, are currently designated as FTOs, a process that began in 1997.

In April, President Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as an FTO, marking the first time the U.S. named a part of another government as such.

After announcing his intentions to designate Mexican cartels as FTOs last week, President Trump has been met with resistance from Mexican government officials despite the president’s offers to provide added border security measures and other forms of assistance to the country. 

Citing concerns over U.S. intervention in the country, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcel Ebrard issued a statement following President Trump’s announcement saying, “Mexico will never admit any action that means the violation of its national sovereignty. We will act firmly. The position has already been transmitted to the US as well as our resolution to deal with transnational organized crime. Mutual respect is the basis of cooperation.”

Mexican President Andrew Manuel Lopez Obrador has also declined aid and other forms of assistance offered by President Trump. 


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Sarah McConnell, Reporter for The Texan

Sarah McConnell

Sarah McConnell is a reporter for The Texan. Previously, she worked as a Cyber Security Consultant after serving as a Pathways Intern at the Department of Homeland Security – Citizenship and Immigration Services. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Texas A&M as well as her Master of Public Service and Administration degree from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. In her free time, Sarah is an avid runner, jazz enthusiast, and lover of all things culinary.