Monday, December 2, 2019

Terrorist Organization designation

I dissent from what appears to be general support for President Trump's designation of Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations.  There are several layers to unwrap in this dissent, however.

First, the cartels are obviously criminal organizations, and I support whatever we can do to combat them within the existing law (which, I imagine, is a fair amount, at least as far as their American activities are concerned).

Second, it is possible that the cartels meet the definition of a terrorist organization under whatever act it is that authorizes the designation of terrorist groups.  As far as I can tell from the State Department website, the three criteria for the designation are that an organization (a) must be foreign, (b) must have the capability and intent of engaging in terrorism, and (c) must threaten the security of the U.S. or of U.S. nationals.  The first and third are undisputable.  The second is probably true, insofar as the cartels use "terrorism" (which I will define for the moment as "violence as a means of intimidation") against Mexican government officials, and probably others as well.

My objection is that it is clearly not what the original act was created for.  Even if cartels meet the designation, they are not primarily "terrorist" organizations.  The cartels use terrorism to help them achieve their primary goal, which is getting money.  Terrorist groups properly so called use money to commit acts of terror, which are used to achieve their primary goal of destabilizing governments and/or forcing governments to act in a particular way.

Language is important, and misusing language is slippery slope in any endeavour, but especially in government. For the same reason, I oppose using RICO laws to prosecute people for criminal activities that really have nothing to do with the kinds of criminal organizations that RICO was created to prosecute.  If the existing laws aren't adequate, pass better laws.  It is precisely because people are willing to misuse existing laws that no one has any confidence in what legislators express as their intentions when they propose laws.  Proponents swore that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not and could not be used to enforce racial quotas or mandatory school busing, but it ended up doing it anyway.  People who lament the hypocrisy and scepticism of politics would do well to combat cases like these.  (Note that I am not blaming the authors of the laws themselves, whose intentions may have been sincere.  It is the people who later misuse the laws, and their superiors who allow it, who are really to blame.)

I also wonder, in the case of the cartels, what this designation is expected to achieve.  From the same State Department web page that I cited above, it looks like the main legal difference for designated terrorist organizations is that U.S. business dealings and cash gifts are prohibited.  I'm sceptical whether this is all that relevant to drug cartels, and I wonder if the designation isn't more for show than for substance.  However, there is probably more to the issue than I am aware of, so I will refrain from judgment for the time being.