Yesterday (September 24, 2020) at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on threats to the homeland, Ken Cuccinelli, the Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, mentioned something very interesting. In his prepared introductory remarks, Cuccinelli said the following regarding the designation of so-called transnational criminal organizations (TCO) in Mexico as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO):
We need the authority to designate transnational organized crime at a level below a foreign terrorist organization, but above U.S. criminal law.
This is remarkable because of the "at a level below foreign terrorist organization, but above U.S. criminal law" part. Essentially, what DHS is saying is that they would like broader authority for prosecuting Mexican TCO, but without going so far as to designate them as FTO.
There are several possible interpretations of why that might be. First, some background. President Trump indicated his intention to designate Mexican "cartels" as FTO in the aftermath of the Agua Prieta massacre last November. In that incident, a family of US citizens including women and children were killed, supposedly in a case of mistaken identity amid a violent conflict between regional criminal groups along the state border between Sonora and Chihuahua.
One of the criticisms of the proposed policy was that designating criminal groups in Mexico as FTO could theoretically justify claims for asylum at the border. Because of the US presidential administration's strong opposition to immigration, the proposal never went anywhere.
It's possible that "a level below" FTO could be a workaround to avoid the unwanted secondary effect of increased claims for asylum from Mexican nationals fleeing areas with a significant presence of the newly designated terrorist organizations.
Another interpretation might be that the interconnectedness of the US and Mexico could cause unintended problems for banks and financial institutions in the US from the harsh and punitive policies associated with FTO designation, which were designed with countries in Southwest Asia and North Africa in mind, where who cares because fuck 'em. Ironically, the same banks which make the US economy the largest in the world also process the billions of dollars in illicit revenue from drug trafficking to meet the United States' insatiable appetite for getting fucked up. Since this policy isn't really about stopping drugs, it's unlikely that the US would ever target itself with something which might make our own lives more difficult.
Whatever the reasoning, the language of "at a level below below a foreign terrorist organization, but above U.S. criminal law" is a notable development in the process of the US giving itself broader authorities to prosecute the unwinnable War on Drugs.
In the rest of the prepared remarks from Ken Cuccinelli, there are no other mentions of FTO designation. In the Q&A portion of the hearing, Cuccinelli essentially reiterates what was said in his introductory remarks. This portion can be viewed at 2:23:00 in the video on the Senate's website. The following is a transcript of the Q&A portion in which Cuccinelli discusses additional legal authority to prosecute TCO:
There's nothing especially noteworthy here. Now we wait to see what specifically DHS is asking for.