In the 1980s, one of us was a guerrilla commander fighting to overthrow an unjust Central American government; the other was a U.S. Marine pilot. But today we are close colleagues who have dedicated our lives to strengthening democratic peace and governance in the Western Hemisphere. Some things change.
But others don’t. One thing that hasn’t changed is the nature of organized crime. It is soulless, cruel and the antithesis of a peaceful, democratic existence. And organized crime has taken its brutality to a new level with its latest commodity: fentanyl.
The drug’s destruction is well known by now, yet the numbers are still stunning. Out of 107,375 people in the United States who died of drug overdoses and drug poisonings over the course of a year, 67 percent involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the CDC. This drug, illegally manufactured mostly in Mexico, is the scourge of police departments and hospital emergency rooms across the country and the subject of heated congressional hearings on Capitol Hill. Republicans frequently lambaste President Joe Biden for not doing more to stop the devastation.
But one tool to combat fentanyl has been overlooked. If members of Congress or the Biden administration really want to take on this deadly drug, there is an opportunity to seriously debilitate the organized criminal syndicates that make, import and distribute it to the American people: Secretary of State Antony Blinken should designate these narco-syndicates as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Using his existing authority, Blinken could make the determination that these organized criminal cartels are, according to the law, “foreign organizations engaged in terrorist activity that threatens the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States.”
Here’s why it would work.
Since the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973, the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to wage a “supply side” fight overseas, primarily in Latin America, to stop drugs before they are smuggled across our border. Entire bureaucracies in the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security and the CIA have evolved into a massive costly enterprise to keep the poison from reaching U.S. streets.
The effort has been marginally successful at times, but overall American demand for cocaine, heroin and marijuana from South and Central America has remained steady. This has had the effect of “normalizing” the drug trade, rendering it the stuff of Netflix’s “Narcos” series.
What is often misunderstood in the Hollywood treatment the drug trade receives is that it isn’t just run by foreigners. The internal U.S. distribution networks for fentanyl are the most essential component of the foreign cartels’ operations because, without them, there are no sales and no profits. And organized crime since time immemorial exists only for those illicit profits.
By designating producers of fentanyl as FTOs, the U.S. federal and state law enforcement bureaucracies would have expanded powers to freeze the assets of U.S. citizen collaborators of the cartels. They could be prosecuted under terrorism statutes which carry stiffer sentences. The deterrent factor would be palpable.
It’s important to understand who these people are. They are the Main Street small business owners of trucking firms, warehouses and stash houses. They are the accountants, lawyers and bankers, as well as the street level dealers. Imagine if they were all now viewed by the American people and the justice system as being just as deadly as a jihadist with an explosive vest. The cartels need American citizens and U.S. residents to make their fentanyl enterprises run.
But the U.S. does not pursue them with the same intensity as the foreign bad guys, perhaps because they don’t pull the triggers, explode the bombs or kidnap their enemies. Instead, these U.S. individuals press click on small money transfers to offshore shell companies. They open their warehouse doors at a certain time and ask no questions as to what is stored within.
The argument against designation is strictly definitional: What is terrorism? Must a terrorist organization have a political agenda or an ideological belief system? Experts disagree on a uniform definition of what constitutes terrorism. But what is clear is that a reign of terror is upon us, and the American fentanyl crisis compels us to act now.
For years, Mexicans and Colombians have said something very true: In the counternarcotics fight, you Americans put up the money and we put up the dead bodies, as the cartels savagely kill hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans in internecine turf wars. Now the U.S. is putting up dead bodies, too — and many more than it loses to international terrorism.
(Indeed, while the main intent of this proposal is to save U.S. lives and improve the U.S. domestic situation, it would also likely improve security in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Central America and the Caribbean; that would have the added benefit of minimizing one of the greatest “push” factors of illegal migration from those countries, as people would have less need to escape the bloodshed of the drug war.)
Designating narco-syndicates as FTOs might have little practical effect on the drug capos themselves, who are already visa-less and can’t access the U.S. financial system in their own names. But it will have the symbolic effect of linking them to ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other sworn American enemies.
More substantively, it will subject more individuals in the U.S. to investigation for providing “material support” to an FTO. It will put more foreign support personnel on No-Fly lists and keep them from getting visas. And it will highlight for Americans, who have never truly accepted that illegal drugs represent a clear and present danger to the national security of the U.S., that the foreign danger is — paradoxically — domestic in much of its operational logistics.
By weakening these distribution networks in the United States, U.S. law enforcement will not only hurt market incentives, but reduce the amount of money the cartels launder and repatriate to Latin America that allows them to bribe officials, arm themselves and control vast territories of friendly democratic nations.
As young men in very different worlds, we both learned the same lesson: The greatest danger is the one cloaked in bland normalcy. U.S.-based, foreign cartel support networks live in stunning normalcy among us. An FTO designation of the transnational drug cartels would not be a normal move — but it’s the one we need to take if we’re really serious about ending the scourge of fentanyl.