Donald Trump suggested the US could designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups, prompting a furious rebuke by Mexican officials who accused the US of undermining the country’s sovereignty.
The US president revealed during a Fox News interview on Tuesday night that he has been working on plans to designate cartels for the past three months, a move that would give US officials greater scope to enact harsher penalties on cartel members and their associates.
“I’ve actually offered [the Mexican president] to let us go in and clean it out, and he’s so far rejected the offer,” Mr Trump told the cable news network.
The Mexican government angrily responded to Mr Trump’s comments by suggesting it would pave the way for further American intervention in the country’s affairs.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in response on Twitter: “Mexico will never admit any action that would be a violation of its national sovereignty. We will act firmly. I have transmitted our position to the US, as well as our resolve to face international organised crime. Mutual respect is the basis for cooperation.”
Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, came to power last year on a platform to end the heavy death toll caused by the cartels.
Mr Lopez Obrador said his policy, called "hugs, not bullets", aims to address the social causes which drive the violence but it appears to be failing, with this year seemingly on track to be one of the bloodiest in the country’s history.
Mr Lopez Obrador was also fiercely criticised last month when the son of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped during a botched raid after his associates launched a ferocious attack on the police.
However the Mexican leader this week restated his opposition to foreign intrusion in the war on drugs, saying: “Our problems will be solved by Mexicans. We don’t want any interference from any foreign country.”
Mr Lopez Obrador stressed the point again in the wake of Mr Trumps’ comments, saying on Wednesday he was open to "cooperation" but not to "intervention".
The Mexican Foreign Ministry said it would seek a high-level meeting with US State Department officials to address the legal designation as well as the flow of arms and money to organised crime.
A designation as a terrorist organisation would make it illegal under US law for individuals in the US to offer support and its members cannot enter the country and may be deported.
It could also be used as a means to combat the lucrative trade of weapons across the US-Mexico border, with the Mexican government estimating that around 80 per cent of the weapons used by cartels originate in the US.
Financial institutions that become aware they have funds connected to the group are also required to block the money and alert the US Treasury Department.
It is not the first time Mr Trump has suggested involving US officials in Mexico’s attempt to curb drug-related violence.
Earlier this month, Mr Trump offered in a tweet to help Mexico "wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth" in the aftermath of the bloodiest attack on US citizens in Mexico in years.
Three Mormon women and six children with dual US-Mexican nationality were killed in the ambush in northern Mexico.
Mexican authorities said they may have been victims of mistaken identity amid confrontations among drug gangs in the area.
Alex LeBaron, a former Mexican congressman and relative of some of the victims, rejected the idea on Twitter of a US "invasion."
"We have already been invaded by terrorist cartels," he said. "We demand real coordination between both countries … both countries are responsible for the rising trade in drugs, weapons and money."
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