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H.R. 5509: Identifying Drug Cartels as Terrorists Act of 2019

Are the groups of drug cartels, who commit murders, more like foreign terrorists or American gangs?


In November, President Trump said that he would designate Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations. Considering the death they’ve caused — including killing nine members of an American Mormon family in November — some drug cartels have killed more Americans than organizations already on the terrorist organization list.

But in December, Trump announced that he would back off from the move at the Mexican president’s behest.

“All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations. Statutorily we are ready to do so,” Trump tweeted. “However, at the request of a man who I like and respect, and has worked so well with us… we will temporarily hold off this designation and step up our joint efforts to deal decisively with these vicious and ever-growing organizations!”

What the bill does

The Identifying Drug Cartels as Terrorists Act would officially adde seven of the most notorious cartels to the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, rather than waiting for President Trump to potentially do so as he wavers on his decision.

Those seven cartels are: the Beltran Leyva Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Los Zetas Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel.

It was introduced in the House on December 19 as bill number H.R. 5509, by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA1).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill officially names the biggest drug cartels by the identifier they should have had all along.

“Mexican drug cartels control the territory along our southwest border, spreading drugs and crime, across Mexico and into the United States,” Rep. Fitzpatrick said in a press release. “These criminal organizations are a menace to society, and we need to do everything in our power to continue to fight them.”

“These criminals bring illegal narcotics, commit atrocious acts of violence, and smuggle humans across our border,” Rep. Fitzpatrick continued. “They harm lives every day, and it is time we call them what they are: terrorists.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that the military designation would be inappropriate for what are essentially judicial crimes and could provoke disastrous unintended consequences. The potential move has attracted opposition from conservatives, in addition to Trump’s usual critics.

“It continues a bad habit of defining every problem as terrorism, and that in turn could lead to further militarization of an already failed drug war,” Daniel Larison wrote for the American Conservative. “The U.S. does not need to designate these groups to combat narcotrafficking, and designating them as terrorists would likely lead to merging the worst of the drug war with the worst of the war on terror.”

“It potentially opens the door to military intervention in a neighboring country that could result in disastrous consequences for people living on both sides of the border,” Larison continued. “Designating the cartels would not be welcomed by our neighbors, who would understandably see it as a prelude to interfering in their internal affairs.”

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted one cosponsor, a Democrat: Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY22). It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

Its odds of passage are low, since any such policy move is likely to come from the executive branch. Indeed, it almost was — and it could soon again, if Trump reverses course and reverts back to his original decision.

Last updated Jan 14, 2020. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Dec 19, 2019.

Identifying Drug Cartels as Terrorists Act of 2019

This bill designates certain organizations, such as the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, as foreign terrorist organizations. (Such a designation triggers various penalties on the organization's members, such as asset freezes and immigration restrictions.)