Cartel Involvement in Failed Iranian Assassination Plot Fuels Push for Terrorist Designation

Despite objections from the Mexican government, House Republicans want to treat cartels like terrorists.


A thwarted assassination plot involving the Saudia Arabian ambassador, an Iranian used car salesman living in Texas, and a Mexican cartel member who is also a secret confidential informant for the DEA is not just good material for a spy novel. It's also fueling the push by House Republicans to designate Mexico's cartels as terrorists. Despite objections from the Mexican government and U.S. State Department, House Republicans will introduce legislation in the coming weeks designating Mexico's drug cartels as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" (FTOs). 

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a member of the House foreign affairs committee, has been pushing for the terrorist designation for months. He's also met several times with Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, a critic of McCaul's proposal, and informed him of his decision to push ahead with legislation designating cartels as FTOs. The recently uncovered plot to assassinate a Saudi Arabian diplomat with the help of the Los Zetas cartel has made it a top priority.

"Although the attack was thwarted, this incident implies the existence of ties between terrorists and the drug cartels," McCaul said, in a statement to Reason. "It is unlikely this sensitive Iranian mission would have been this terrorist group's first attempted encounter with the drug cartels. Indeed, it underscores the need to examine the deteriorating situation in Mexico, our border security initiatives and the measures we have in place to combat the cartels."

The assassination plot unveiled last week was led by an Iranian used car salesman living in Texas named Mansour Arbabsiar. During taped calls and meetings with a member of the Los Zetas cartel, Arbabsiar claimed that his cousin, a member of an elite Iranian special forces group, came up with a plan to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and attack the Israeli embassy with bombs. They would pay the Los Zetas member, who was also a confidential informant for the DEA, $1.5 million for the hit. Arbabsiar was arrested after arranging a wire transfer of $100,000 to the informant's account.

The terrorist designation, which would allow the U.S. to target the cartels more aggressively and directly, is hotly contested by both the U.S. State Department (which also has the ability to make the FTO designation, but has so far declined to do so) and the Mexican government, which condemned GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry for suggesting that destroying the cartels might require sending more U.S. troops into Mexico.

"As a practical matter, Mexico is highly resistant to the notion," says Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Mexico Institute. "The government of Mexico certainly does not describe the organizations as terrorist organizations. They're not like Al Qaeda. They're not motivated by an ideology or a religion, they don't have an intention of taking over the government and running the country. They're not enemies, you know attempting to tear down the United States. They wreak terror on civilians, there's no question about that. But they're not organized in the same fashion."

Olson, who has also worked at the Washington Office on Latin America, Amnesty International USA, and the Augsburg College's Center for Global Education in Cuernavaca, Mexico, doubts that the terrorist designation would meet with Mexico's approval.

"The big question that the proponents of that have to answer is: Is it possible to effectively combat organized crime in Mexico without the full cooperation of Mexico, the Mexican government. If the answer is yes," he says, "then maybe it doesn't matter. My own opinion is, to do that puts at risk full cooperation of Mexico. And frankly, I don't think that you can be very effective and undermine the cartels without the government's cooperation."

At an early October 4th hearing on the Merida Initiative, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) grilled the State Department's William Brownfield, the mastermind behind Plan Colombia and one of the leads on the Merida Initiative, and received much the same response.

Citing the groups' guerrilla warfare against each other and Mexican police, political assassinations, recruitment efforts, and the Monterrey casino fire that Mexican President Felipe Calderon initially called "an act of terrorism," Mack told Brownfield that he was "having a little bit of a hard time understanding the reluctance of saying that the activities the cartels are showing do fit the CIA's definition of insurgency."

"I don't question your facts, Mr. Chairman, and I don't question your motivation," Brownfield said. "You and I have exactly the same objective in mind here. If, on the other hand, you're asking me do I see exactly the same thing here as I see in other parts of the world that we describe as having insurgencies—they are different."

Later in the hearing, Brownfield was asked by Rep. Henry Cuellar (R-Texas) if the U.S. should be working more closely with Mexico, or "pushing them away by going into what names we ought to call [the cartels] or what groups are working there," Brownfield said, "I would never offer an opinion, direct or indirect, on what the distinguished members of these two committees have suggested. I would say to you, as I said in my opening statement, that if we cannot reach basic agreement with the government of Mexico, our efforts will probably not succeed. It has to be cooperative, they have to agree."

While there's no official headcount on who in the House supports McCaul's bill, a number of prominent House Republicans appear to already be on board. There's Mack, for one, and also Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee. 

"We must stop looking at the drug cartels today solely from a law enforcement perspective and consider designating these narco-trafficking networks as Foreign Terrorist Organizations," Ros-Lehtinen said at an Oct. 14 hearing. "It seems that our sworn enemy Iran sees a potential kindred spirit in the drug cartels in Mexico. We see reports on the expansion of the FARC into West Africa, and its potential links with Hezbollah and Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb."

While McCaul's office is confident that more House Republicans will voice their support for the bill, less certain is how the designation could affect U.S.-Mexico relations, and whether more violence against the cartels will lead to less violence against innocent Mexicans. 

Mike Riggs is an associate editor of Reason magazine.