Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Mexico

WOLA Podcast: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must Begin: Justice for Disappeared Mexicans

A stunning 90,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. In a new WOLA podcast, our director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, Stephanie Brewer, emphasizes that the situation isn’t hopeless. She offers a really clear explanation of steps Mexico’s justice system can take, now.

Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

This week, Adam is talking with Stephanie Brewer, WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, about our latest campaign: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must BeginThe campaign addresses the more than 90,000 people disappeared in Mexico (mostly since 2006) and the challenges to stopping disappearances.

In this conversation, Adam and Stephanie discuss how the crisis grew to today’s tragic scale, what has worked and has not worked for investigations into disappearances in the country, and some of the major findings of the campaign. Please visit the campaign’s website to see the in-depth findings and learn what you can do to support victims and family members of the disappeared in Mexico.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts,SpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Since mid-July, a really big jump in migration

Valerie González at Texas’ Rio Grande Valley Monitor has a big scoop this afternoon:

Title 42, a federal public health code used to expel a large portion of migrants seeking asylum, is as of late this week no longer in effect for migrant families across the country, according to a federal Mexican source, and the implications of which may have already been seen in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to the source, they were made aware of the changes since Wednesday, but said no official communication had been released by Mexico’s office of Foreign Relations and the National Institute of Immigration, also known as SRE and INM. 

…By the end of the week, the practice was no longer applied to migrant families when Mexico began to decline accepting them. 

Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to expel as many migrants as possible shortly after encountering them at the U.S.-Mexico border, without affording them a chance to petition for asylum. The Biden administration hasn’t applied this “Title 42” expulsions policy to unaccompanied children, but it expelled 65,920 family members between February and June. WOLA and a host of other organizations have bitterly opposed Title 42.

Mexico was made to agree to accept expelled families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It started making exceptions to that in late January, refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families with small children to the state of Tamaulipas, which is across from the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in south Texas:

That is the sector where most Central American families arrive. As a result of the Tamaulipas limitation, Border Patrol has expelled families much less often from the Rio Grande Valley sector than elsewhere. See the rightmost set of columns here:

Now, Mexico’s ban on using Title 42 to expel non-Mexican families appears to be in place border-wide, even if the Mexican government hasn’t acknowledged it. (Why don’t they acknowledge these things? It’s not as though U.S. border authorities wouldn’t find out immediately.)

This is happening amid a jump in migration that appeared to start sometime after the July 4 holiday. González, who has been doing some excellent reporting from the Rio Grande Valley, has documented steady increases in the past two and a half weeks in the number of migrants—families, adults, unaccompanied children—stuck unprocessed in Border Patrol custody, just in this sector alone:

  • July 14: 3,500 in custody
  • July 19: 5,000 in custody
  • July 25: 7,000 in custody
  • July 31 (this morning): 10,000 in custody

Border Patrol’s rustic, jail-like Rio Grande Valley facilities have a capacity of only about 3,000.

You can see the post-July 4 increase in migration by charting out numbers of unaccompanied children whom Border Patrol is encountering at the border. Since their numbers jumped to record levels in March, the government has been providing daily (weekday, non-holiday) reports. (Get them all in a zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.) Here’s what that looks like:

You can see that on an average day, roughly 100 or more kids are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied now than were in late June and early July. If adults and families are following a similar pattern, we’re seeing an unprecedented July increase over already very high levels of undocumented migration. And as COVID travel restrictions ease worldwide, the numbers are likely to grow further.

The likely impact of Mexico’s shutdown of Title 42 family expulsions will be an increase in arrivals of families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the border. This may not be a tremendous increase, since—as the first chart above shows—70 percent of families from those countries arriving in the Rio Grande Valley were already being processed in the United States instead of expelled. But still, an increase is most likely.

If families face no danger of expulsion, though, we may see a decrease in arrivals of unaccompanied children. In a painfully large but unknown number of cases, families have been separating on the Mexican side of the border, with parents sending children across unaccompanied because they won’t be expelled. Without Title 42, families can attempt to petition for asylum while staying intact.

However, families who don’t ask “correctly,” or who fail “credible fear” interviews, may be flown home under the “expedited removal” policy that the Biden administration revived this week. Those deportation flights back to Central America restarted a couple of days ago.

WOLA Podcast: “The Border Situation Viewed from Mexico”

The WOLA Podcast continues to cover the situation at the border, this time what’s happening in Mexico. There, the Biden administration has been leaning on the national government to send more security forces and accept more expelled Central American families. I gathered four colleagues for what turned out to be a really informative discussion about the current moment, and it’s not good.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As migrants from Central American countries flee instability at home, Mexico is increasingly a final destination for them. COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency, received a record number of asylum requests in March 2021. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has struck deals with Mexico (and other regional governments) to militarize its southern border. The consequences of such deals means migrants will face more dangers in their journey north, including from state actors.

Despite the unfortunate response from regional governments, non-governmental actors are working hard to ensure that migrants lucky enough to make it into Mexico or the United States are supported and treated with dignity. This conversation details what is happening on the ground in Mexico, as well as what civilian groups in the United States are doing to support the first people to enter the United States as “Remain in Mexico” winds down.

We are joined by four WOLA staff experts:

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Mexico: Moving On from Military Cooperation

Here’s a quick analysis of where things stand with U.S. aid to Mexico’s military and police, which I wrote with WOLA’s Mexico director, Stephanie Brewer. The Mexico Violence Resource Project, a new initiative affiliated with the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, published it today as part of a really good collection of pieces about the future of U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. (Which is going through a rough patch right now.)

Here’s an excerpt, but I just include it here in order to drive traffic over there.

Today, WOLA estimates that U.S. assistance to Mexico’s security forces totals a bit more than $100 million, of an overall annual package of perhaps $210 million. Of that, two aid accounts matter most.

* The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which can pay for military and police aid as well as judicial or other civilian aid, is channeling $100 million in appropriations into Mexico aid in 2021. About one-third to one-half of that is likely to assist Mexican police forces and the INM, with a small amount probably benefiting military units. (Mexico’s new National Guard has not been getting U.S. aid, though conversations are ongoing.)

* The other main account is the Defense Department’s authority to train and equip foreign security forces, known as “Section 333.” This very untransparent funding source provided $55.3 million in aid to Mexican military and police units in 2019,according to the Congressional Research Service. This is the main channel for assisting SEMAR and SEDENA.

$100 million is a much smaller package than Colombia’s military and police will get in 2021 (about $250 million) and a fraction of what Mexico’s forces got in 2010, at the outset of the Mérida Initiative (about $500 million). And it’s not clear even how much of 2021’s $100 million might get delivered, considering all of the bumps in the relationship between the Biden and López Obrador administrations.

Nonetheless, despite all the distrust, there will always be a bilateral security relationship between countries that share a 1,970-mile land border that’s the world’s most frequently crossed. Mexico is the United States’ number-two trading partner. Most undocumented migrants, and most of the illicit drugs on which more than 70,000 Americans per year overdose, pass through Mexico’s territory. The two countries are going to work together no matter what.

The question is whether they’ve been working together on the right things. A lesson of the Mérida Initiative years is that all four pillars are best fortified by civilian-to-civilian, not military-to-military, cooperation.

Read the whole article.

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: The future of Latin America’s anti-corruption fight

Here’s a third WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, I talk to my colleagues Adriana Beltrán and Moses Ngong about the region’s fight against corruption: how unpunished corruption underlies so many other problems, who is fighting it, and how we must support them internationally with all we’ve got.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

The United States is in a transition period between the Trump and Biden administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

In this episode, a third in a series about the transition, we talk about corruption and efforts to fight it. WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Mexico Program Assistant Moses Ngong call corruption “endemic: a system, a network, a web of relations” that underlies many other problems in Latin America, from insecurity, to susceptibility to natural disasters, to forced migration.

Focusing particularly on Mexico and Central America, we discuss who the region’s anti-corruption reformers are, the challenges they face, and how the United States and other international actors can best support them. A key point for the Biden administration is that other policy goals in the Americas will be impossible to achieve without a determined approach to corruption that upholds reformers.

The work of WOLA’s Mexico and Citizen Security programs often takes on corruption. Resources mentioned in the podcast include:

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered migration, and the week before we talked about U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. Next week, the series’ final episode will take on the state of human rights and democracy.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Is it Mexico or Colombia?

During the late 2000s, when the Bush administration was rolling out the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against cartels, secuirty analysts fretted about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. They meant that the country could be consumed by generalized violence so severe that it impacts political stability and economic viability.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the military-first strategy it pursued against organized crime, Mexico has long since “Colombianized.” In 2019 Mexico’s homicide rate was greater than Colombia’s.

Colombia’s homicide rate wasn’t much lower, though—and even as its cities remain relatively calm amid COVID-19 lockdown, the countryside is aflame with about 51 massacres so far in 2020. Still, Colombia’s violence is different than it was a decade ago. The FARC are gone. So are right-wing paramilitary groups with a national political agenda. Today’s armed groups are scattered FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Gulf Clan organized crime network, and several regional organized crime splinter groups.

Different groups are active in different regions. Many didn’t exist a year or two ago. Many won’t exist a year or two from now. They fight for control of the drug trade, which still probably provides the largest illicit income stream. But they also want to control territory to benefit from illegal mining, land theft, human trafficking, extortion, and other activities. Almost none can lay claim to a political program. Almost all benefit from relationships with corrupt local government officials, including security-force units.

I was referring to Colombia in that last paragraph. But re-read it and you’ll find that it also describes Mexico. It can describe the situation in Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, the Bajo Cauca, or Catatumbo. But it’s also Guanajuato, Michoacán, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas.

The following seven excerpts come from two recent reports: one about Mexico, and one about Colombia. The first is the annual Organized Crime and Violence report that the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego published on July 30. The second is a 3,400-word overview of Colombia’s security situation that the investigative website La Silla Vacía published on August 24.

I’ve removed any information from each excerpt that might identify the country it describes (like names of places, people, drugs, or armed groups). Everything else is intact.

Can you guess which country each excerpt is referring to? Answers are at the bottom.

1. Fragmentation into smaller, more predatory groups

Counter-drug efforts and conflicts with rival organizations have disrupted the leadership structures of some major groups. This has contributed to the splintering of groups into smaller, more regionally-focused operations. Because of their more localized scale, such organizations tend to have less capability to develop trans-national criminal enterprises, like international drug trafficking operations. As a result, in addition to small-scale drug dealing, they are also more inclined to engage in predatory crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and similar crimes, which involve illicitly extracting revenue from individuals or businesses. Compared to major drug trafficking operations, many of these crimes have relatively low “barriers to entry” and often require less state protection. However, because of their predatory nature, the fragmentation of organized crime has contributed to more widespread victimization and public outrage.

2. Narcotrafficking is one of many illicit activities

“In some zones, narcotrafficking is the most important problem, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, for groups like [name], [name], and [name], the fight is over territorial control and all that that contains. Control over populations, imposition of rules, ‘taxes’ as they call it—extortion of the people—of all they can collect from them, and even access to local political power through intimidation,” said [a non-governmental expert].

3. Government strategies have fed fragmentation

U.S. and [country] counter-drug efforts targeting major drug trafficking organizations—including efforts to eradicate production, interdict illicit goods in transit, and disrupt organized crime leadership structures—contributed to fragmentation and further infighting among criminal organizations. In particular, the use of leadership disruption, or “kingpin” removal has greatly increased the internal fragmentation and competition among criminal organizations, and accordingly has been seen as a major contributor to violence.

4. Substituting for the state during the COVID-19 outbreak

It seems likely that the combined supply-chain disruptions, increased law enforcement scrutiny, and surges in the market have led to increased violent competition among traffickers vying to hold onto or expand their market share in uncertain times. Such organizations have also been making obvious attempts to gain public visibility and support, even showing up the government by distributing aid packages of food and supplies to help poor families amid the pandemic.

5. The military agrees that the strategy can’t just be military

The military strategy without state presence isn’t enough, as Army General [name], who is in charge of [unit], recognizes. “The solution isn’t soldiers in the territory, the solution is comprehensive, committing different sectors in the region to eliminate the narcotrafficking that causes violence. Where there’s drugs there’s death, blood, and pain. We provide the military component on the ground to try to stabilize the regions, to try to keep the armed groups from carrying out these kind of bloody interventions,’ he said. This comprehensive approach implies social investment and “the economic stabilization of the regions,” said the officer.

6. Local corruption helps groups thrive

Recent surges in violence are a function of the complex interactions among criminal organizations, and the choices and strategies that past and current governments have employed to combat them. Just as concerning, the ability of organized crime groups to thrive hinges critically on the acquiescence, protection, and even direct involvement of corrupt public officials, as well as corrupt private sector actors, who share in the benefits of illicit economic activities.

7. Conflicts are localized, while the government pursues a military-first approach

In [country] there is not one, but several local wars taking place, with actors and logics that aren’t exactly the same, but with something in common: they are raging everywhere. Meanwhile the government, according to experts and according to its own announcements, is pursuing a strategy that is more military than structural, even as it promises the opposite on paper.

Answers

(1), (3), (4), and (6) refer to Mexico.

(2), (5), and (7) refer to Colombia.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in May

  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on political developments, issues with U.S. foreign policy, and events in selected countries.
    Mark P. Sullivan, June S. Beittel, Nese F. DeBruyne, Peter J. Meyer, Clare Ribando Seelke, Maureen Taft-Morales, M. Angeles Villareal, Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 21, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46258.
  • Latest edition of a regular CRS report on developments in Cuba and U.S. policy concerns.
    Mark P. Sullivan, Cuba: U.S. Policy in the 116th Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, May 14, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45657.
  • The GAO discusses how well (or poorly) the State Department and USAID have monitored and evaluated programs to Mexico under the “Mérida Initiative” aid package. This report does not report comprehensively on all aid to Mexico.
    U.S. Assistance to Mexico: State Department Could Improve its Monitoring of Mérida Initiative Projects (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 12, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-388.

WOLA Podcast: Practicing Asylum Law in El Paso: “MPP is just—it’s utterly insane”

I enjoyed recording this conversation with someone I admire a lot, El Paso-based asylum attorney Taylor Levy. Here’s the narrative from the WOLA podcast web page:

In mid-2019 the Trump administration ramped up its “Remain in Mexico” program, forcing tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearing dates in Mexican border cities. In order to do her job, Taylor Levy, an asylum attorney in El Paso, Texas, found herself spending most of her time on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

This gave Levy a firsthand look at the cruelties of the Trump administration’s war on the right to seek asylum at the border—some of them dramatic and shocking, some of them everyday outrages.

In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 made a border closure look more likely, Levy relocated to Ciudad Juárez in order to serve her clients. She remained there until the pandemic forced the hotel where she was staying to close down.

In this podcast, Taylor Levy shares some of her recent experiences and some dire warnings about what is to come. Hers is a gripping testimony about what it is like to be on the ground in the middle of one of the worst human rights crises in recent Latin American history—one created by U.S. policy.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in April

  • Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Mexican politics and economics, U.S.-Mexican relations, and assistance. Good U.S. aid numbers.
    Clare Ribando Seelke, Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 29, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R42917.
  • Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Honduran politics and bilateral relations with the United States.
    Peter J. Meyer, Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 27, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL34027.
  • The Government Accountability Office found that Customs and Border Protection wildly overspent on a tent facility to house apprehended migrants during late 2019.
    U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Management of a Temporary Facility in Texas Raised Concerns about Resources Used (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, April 9, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-321R.

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

WOLA Podcast: Searching for Mexico’s Disappeared

With two very good guests in two parts of Mexico, I’m really glad the technology held up on this one. It was well worth the high-wire act.

Here’s the text of the summary at wola.org. Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

More than 60,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. As a March 23 WOLA commentary by Maureen Meyer and Gina Hinojosa notes, the current government is taking some initial steps to address the crisis. A great deal, however, remains to be done, and victims’ groups trying to locate the disappeared continue to work very much on their own.

To discuss the crisis and Mexico’s incipient efforts to address it, Meyer and Hinojosa are joined by two guests from the frontlines of Mexico’s fight to locate and identify the disappeared. Mariano Machain is the international advocacy coordinator at SERAPAZ Mexico, a non-governmental organization working for peace and positive transformation of social conflicts. Lucy Díaz (seen in a December 2019 ABC News Nightline feature) is a leader of Colectivo Solecito, a group of mothers searching for the disappeared in Veracruz state; her son Luis disappeared in 2013.

Big new report: “The ‘Wall’ Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border”

This map of the Mexico-Guatemala border region displays all locations mentioned in the report. We were present at those in blue during our August 2019 field research visit.

It’s always nice to finish something. Here’s an in-depth account of the situation at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where I joined colleagues for a 400-mile research trip in August. The result is this report, released today.

It’s 15,000 words, is stuffed with photos, and covers the ground outlined below. So pour a beverage and join us on this journey from Tapachula to Tenosique. And here’s the PDF version, which looks nicer.

Contents
Introduction
Mexico Proposes a New Approach to Migration—Then Reverses Itself under U.S. Pressure

* Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico Border
* U.S.-Mexico Agreement to Curb Migration Flows
* Apprehension Numbers at Mexico’s Southern Border
Mexico’s Security and Migration Deployment in the Border Zone
Migration Patterns and Smuggling

* Shifts in Apprehension and Deportation Trends
* Extra-Continental Migrants
* Shifts in Migration Routes
* Trends in Corridors
The Human Rights Impact of Mexico’s Crackdown
* Detention Facilities
* Crimes against Migrants
* Migrants and the Local Population
Asylum and Detention
* Why Migrants are Fleeing
* Mexico’s Asylum System
* COMAR on the Brink
* Exit visas
* Buses from the Northern Border
Official Corruption in the Border Zone
U.S. Assistance in the Border Region
Conclusions
Recommendations

This morning in Ciudad Juarez

By a drainage ditch on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande, a soldier with a “National Guard” armband buys what looks like cigarettes from a vendor.

What happens if Mexican cartels go on the terrorist list

It’s a waste of time to write something that concludes, “President Trump hasn’t thought this through.” Of course he hasn’t. But still, let’s think through Trump’s declaration this week that he plans to add Mexican criminal groups (“cartels”) to the U.S. government’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Here’s that list, covering the whole world. There are some pretty vicious groups listed on it: ISIS, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the ELN.

But there are a lot of vicious groups missing. You don’t see the Russian Mafia, the Hong Kong Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, Italy’s Cosa Nostra, Brazil’s PCC, Central America’s MS-13—or Mexican cartels. There aren’t any criminals or mobsters on the list. Which makes President Trump’s call to add Mexican organized crime groups look bizarre.

But it’s not that bizarre, because U.S. law about terrorism is pretty weird anyway. Just start with the term “terrorism”: the very good Wikipedia entry on “Definitions of Terrorism” finds several different ones in the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, Defense Department guidances, and elsewhere. Those definitions aren’t in sync.

They differ on an important question: whether an act of violence has to be politically motivated to be considered “terrorism,” or whether it’s enough that the violence just seeks to influence a government’s actions. A drug cartel using violence to keep government out if its business fits the second definition, but “keep out of our business” doesn’t really count as a political motivation.

The law governing the State Department’s listing of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Title 22 U.S. Code Section 2656f(d)(2)) uses the first definition, requiring some political motivation in order for a violent group to be considered “terrorist”:

The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

So for the purposes of the “terrorist list,” there has to be a political motivation. Adding Mexican organized crime to that list would stretch the definition of “political motivation” so much that it would open the door to adding potentially dozens of worldwide criminal groups to the list.

It’s not hard to imagine why the State Department, the Defense Department, and the intelligence community would want to avoid doing that. Mixing criminal groups with terrorist groups means losing focus. In the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, there was a broad consensus that the U.S. government needed to concentrate its resources and assets on groups, like Al Qaeda, that had used terrorism to kill civilians for a “cause,” no matter how twisted. There was an assumption (usually borne out) that criminals would not be so radicalized or extremist that, for instance, they’d employ suicide bombers.

So there were no serious proposals to dilute the focus by adding organized crime to the terrorist list. The U.S. government already had—and still has—ample tools for dealing with drug-trafficking organized crime groups, going back to the drug war legislation of the 1980s and 1990s. Kingpin Act designations. Lists of specially designated narcotics traffickers. Decertifications of states that collude with them. And billions of dollars in aid each year under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program and Defense budget authorities.

Meanwhile, perhaps because they lack political motivations, organized crime groups tend to be much more transient and shorter-lived than terrorist groups. They’re slippery. They fragment and change names, they lose and gain relevance, more quickly than the groups on the FTO list. Start adding organized crime groups to the list and get ready to update it constantly.

Look at the organized crime landscape in Mexico. In 2006, it was dominated by the Sinaloa cartel and some smaller ones: Gulf, Zetas, Juárez (Carrillo Fuentes), Tijuana (Arellano Félix), Familia Michoacana, Beltrán Leyva, and not many others. If your terrorist list included those today, it’d be irrelevant. Some of those are functionally defunct, you’d have to add splinter groups of some of them, and you’d have to consider adding groups that weren’t on the radar in 2006, like the Cuinis, the Viagras, Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos, Nueva Plaza, Nueva Resistencia, Gente Nueva, Santa Rosa de Lima, Northeast Cartel, and many others—first among them, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, headed by Nemesio Oseguera alias “El Mencho.”

A decade ago, Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo said that his country’s authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. When undergoing the thorough, deliberative process of listing a group, it hardly makes sense to keep up with all of these comings, goings, and schisms.

Some Mexican analysts have pointed out since Trump’s announcement that listing Mexican criminal groups as “terrorists” increases the likelihood of military action in Mexican territory. That may technically be true, though it’s still a very slim likelihood. It’s hard to imagine U.S. military personnel carrying out an operation on Mexican soil without Mexican consent just because a Mexican criminal group has been given a new status. Still, there’s always a scenario that goes something like: “President López Obrador, we have the coordinates where ‘El Mencho’ is right now. We have one hour. We don’t care what you say, a drone is on its way.”

Short of military operations, listing Mexican criminal groups would mean a heavier U.S. hand in Mexico because it would cast a wide net across Mexican society. Organized crime survives everywhere through its deep roots in the state and civil society. (Terrorist groups also do, to some extent, but tend to be more “off the grid” because their relations with states are more adversarial.) People who live in legality are quiet “nodes” on the organized-crime network. If Mexican groups end up on the FTO list, the U.S. government’s list of Mexican citizens offering “material support to terrorism” (in the eyes of the law, the same as raising money for Al Qaeda) could explode, and could include officials at all levels of Mexican government. It could also include people who make extortion payments under duress. Mary Beth Sheridan explained it well in the Washington Post:

Mexican organized-crime groups aren’t isolated bands operating at the margins of society. Their members own legitimate-seeming businesses, exert control over communities and routinely pay off politicians and police. If any contact with organized-crime groups was construed as support for terrorism, many Mexicans — including innocent people — could find themselves punished.

This might not be a totally bad consequence, because it would mean more accountability for corruption. But it could gum up travel, trade, and overall relations pretty badly.

But the crackdown wouldn’t just happen in Mexico. Listing Mexican groups as terrorists could also cast a wide net across U.S. society. It’s “possible Trump’s move could see U.S. drug dealers labeled and treated as terrorist supporters,” Alex Ward wrote in Vox. The same, one assumes, would go for U.S. bankers or realtors who facilitate cartels’ money-laundering: no more fines, they’d be looking at jail time for terrorist financing. And it would come down hard on all the U.S. citizen “ant traffickers” who take advantage of America’s lax gun laws by buying a few AR-15s at gun shows and stores, driving them south across the border in their cars’ trunks, and selling them to criminals for robust profits. The banking and gun lobbies will be unhappy with this new counter-terrorist scrutiny.

Another interesting outcome would be that Mexican victims’ asylum claims might get a boost in U.S. immigration courts. Their cases wouldn’t become “slam dunks,” necessarily, but it’d certainly help them. If you’ve been threatened by a group on the FTO list, your claim is going to be stronger than it would be if you were just threatened by a criminal organization.

If a group is seen as so active and threatening that it makes the terrorist list, it’s easier to argue that the group has national reach, so the asylum seeker isn’t safe anywhere in her country’s territory. Also, it’s easier to argue that the asylum-seeker’s government isn’t capable of protecting her. That latter argument is even stronger because of corruption. Several years ago it was nearly impossible to argue that Colombia’s government couldn’t protect people from the FARC because the FARC had corrupted Colombia’s government: the FARC didn’t work that way, they fought the government. But Mexican organized crime does work that way: the victims of the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre—to take one example among very many—were the victims not just of Guerreros Unidos, but of local security forces that had become the criminals’ virtual allies.

Would victims of these groups automatically get asylum? No, not at a time when the Trump administration has raised the bar for asylum to nearly impossible, and certainly illegal, levels. But if asylum-seekers’ lawyers (if they have them) can say their clients are threatened by groups on the State Department’s terrorist list, they will be sure to feature that very prominently in their clients’ applications.

From U.S. bankers being labeled “terrorist supporters” to asylum-seekers having a big new argument, a lot of unintentional outcomes could come from the Trump administration “crossing the streams” and adding Mexican criminal groups to the terrorist list. Clearly, President Trump hasn’t thought them through.

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