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 drug cartels’ finances by imposing sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador criticized the plan, saying he wanted cooperation with the United States 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 Mexican cartels to be classified as terrorist groups after the killing in Mexico last month of nine American mothers and children with dual Mexican nationality.

While the designation 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 said he welcomed Trump’s move.

“I welcome that he has taken our opinion into account. … It was a very good decision today to defer the designation,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.

Trump’s tweet reversing course came a day after U.S. Attorney General William Barr discussed the issue in meetings with Lopez Obrador, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and other Mexican officials in Mexico City.

The two sides “talked about cooperation in arms trafficking, money laundering, international drug trafficking and how to deal with transnational crime and international drug trafficking,” Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

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 U.S. relations with Mexico and hindering the Mexican government’s fight against drug trafficking, according to people familiar with the matter.

Lopez Obrador has attempted to chart a non-confrontational security policy during his first year in office. His government says its 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 Mohammad Zargham, Sonya Hepinstall and Cynthia Osterman

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