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Mexican drug cartels considered terrorists?

By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
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Are drug cartels considered terrorists?
  • Texas Republican wants cartels declared terrorist organizations
  • Ambassador says if so, U.S. drug users should be considered terror "financiers"
  • American officials are concerned about violence spilling across border
  • Mexican officials say cartels are not insurgent or political
  • Terrorism
  • Michael McCaul
  • Mexico

(CNN) -- Should Mexican drug cartels be considered terrorist organizations? They murder, plot, kidnap, and dismember bodies. They're also responsible for shootouts, explosions, fires and other atrocities.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the Homeland Security Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, says they should.

McCaul has introduced a bill that would add Mexico's six dominant cartels to the State Department's foreign terrorist organizations list. The criminal organizations included in the bill are the Arellano Felix organization, Los Zetas, Beltran Leyva, Familia Michoacana, Sinaloa Cartel, and the Gulf Cartel/New Federation.

If the bill is approved, it would allow law enforcement agencies to have increased powers to limit cartels' financial property and travel interests and impose harsher punishments on anyone who provides material support to cartels.

In announcing his bill, McCaul said that "the [Mexican] cartels use violence to gain political and economic influence. They have taken control of much of northern Mexico and spillover crime has resulted in the abandonment of property and loss of security on the U.S. side of the border."

Read more about Mexican drug cartel violence

But the bill has ruffled some feathers in the Mexican government. After the Dallas Morning News supported it on a recent editorial, Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan fired back in a letter to the newspaper's editor.

In the letter, Sarukhan says that "if you label these organizations as terrorist, you will have to start calling drug consumers in the U.S. 'financiers of terrorist organizations' and gun dealers 'providers of material support to terrorists.'"

"Otherwise," the ambassador wrote, "you really sound as if you want to have your cake and eat it too."

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on March 16, FBI Director Robert Mueller expressed concern about the danger posed by the cartels. "The extreme violence across our Southwest border continues to impact the United States as we saw the murders last March of American consulate workers in Juarez, Mexico and the shooting last month of two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Mexico," Mueller said.

Consular employee Lesley Enriquez and her husband Arthur Redelfs were shot and killed in Juarez, Mexico by gangs affiliated with a drug cartel, according to Mexican authorities.

ICE agent Jaime Zapata was killed and another agent injured in February when they were ambushed on a highway in central Mexico. It has not been clarified if this was a case of mistaken identity or if criminals targeted the agents traveling from the northern Mexican city of Monterrey to Mexico City, where they were based.

The concern about Mexican drug cartels has also been expressed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. At a U.S. Senate Committee hearing on March 9, Napolitano said that the U.S. government remains "very concerned about drug cartel violence in Mexico and we must vigorously guard against potential spillover effects into the United States."

Mexican officials have repeatedly said that drug cartels are neither an insurgency nor terrorist organizations because their purpose is neither to destabilize the government nor promote a political ideology. Their level of cruelty is unprecedented, but they don't hate a particular group. Their only motive, Mexican authorities say, is hard, cold cash.