Trump says he will hold off designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Friday he will temporarily hold off designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations at the request of Mexico’s president.

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters while participating in a "roundtable on small business and red tape reduction accomplishments" in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump said last week he would make the designation to disrupt the cartels’ finances through sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans. But Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador objected, saying he wanted U.S. cooperation on fighting drug gangs, not intervention.

“All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations,” Trump said on Twitter.

“However, at the request of a man who I like and respect, and has worked so well with us, President Andres Manuel @lopezobrador we will temporarily hold off this designation and step up our joint efforts to deal decisively with these vicious and ever-growing organizations!” he said.

A growing chorus of conservative voices in the United States has called for the designation after the killing in Mexico last month of nine mothers and children with dual American-Mexican nationality.

While it would not directly give the United States authority for military operations in Mexico, many Mexicans were nervous their northern neighbor could use it as a pretext for a unilateral intervention.

Lopez Obrador welcomed Trump’s move.

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“It was a very good decision today to defer the designation,” he told reporters.

Trump’s reversal came a day after U.S. Attorney General William Barr discussed the issue with Lopez Obrador and Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard in Mexico City.

If the U.S. government were to name terrorist groups in Mexico, then people fleeing the areas where they operate could claim credible fear of persecution, which is a requirement for asylum, Ebrard noted.

“They could come to the United States and say, ‘I come from a place where there’s terrorism,’ and (the U.S.) would have to grant them credible fear,” he told Televisa News on Thursday.

“It would be a very bad deal,” Ebrard said.

Trump’s threat to designate Mexican cartels as terrorist groups had also met resistance within his administration. Some U.S. officials privately expressed misgivings about the risk of damaging relations with Mexico and hindering the Mexican government’s fight against drug trafficking, according to people familiar with the matter.

Lopez Obrador has pursued a non-confrontational security policy. His government’s priorities are disrupting the cartels’ cash flows and money-laundering opportunities and halting illegal arms trafficking into Mexico from the United States.

Trump has repeatedly offered military assistance in the fight against drug gangs, which Lopez Obrador has always declined.

Reporting by Eric Beech and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Edwina Gibbs