AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump says he will designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups. Trump told former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in an interview that he's been working on it for the last 90 days. The Mexican government has greeted the news with alarm, saying the move would amount to intervention. For more on how Mexico is seeing this, we're joined now by journalist James Fredrick in Mexico City.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa. Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So I mean, there's nothing new - right? - about the U.S. being concerned with Mexican drug cartels. So why is the Mexican government so alarmed by what Trump is saying right now?
FREDRICK: Well, President Lopez Obrador summed it up pretty concisely this morning at a press conference. He said cooperation, yes, intervention, no when it comes to the issue of fighting drug cartels. So his administration has basically said that they don't think the militarized war on drugs has worked, and they want to ramp it down. But with Trump coming in and saying things like this, it feels like it's being ramped back up. And the fear in Mexico is that this terrorism designation is a first step towards U.S. military intervention here in Mexico.
CHANG: Well, how exactly would designating cartels as terrorist groups change the fight against them?
FREDRICK: Well, President Trump has made it clear he wants to change the way these drug cartels are fought. As he referenced on Bill O'Reilly, he said he wants to help the Mexican government.
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PRES DONALD TRUMP: I've actually offered him to let us go in and clean it out. And he, so far, has rejected the offer. But at some point, something has to be done.
FREDRICK: So the question is what Trump means by this. If this means direct U.S. military intervention in Mexico - that's really not clear if he means that. But in practical terms, this designation gives the U.S. the ability to impose sanctions on anyone who is supportive or aiding drug cartels in any way. But that's not exactly new. The U.S. Treasury Department already sanctions lots of people who are affiliated with cartels. The other big difference that this could make is that it would - the State Department's counterintelligence unit could be involved in Mexico, providing more surveillance and intelligence. But again, the question is how much that changes. The Drug Enforcement Administration is already very active in Mexico against drug cartels.
FREDRICK: How much does that move the needle?
CHANG: Well, if this does go through, if these cartels are defined as terrorist organizations, what do you see as possible unintended consequences that could flow out of this?
FREDRICK: The biggest question is, how do you identify someone as a member or a collaborator of a drug cartel? In recent years here in Mexico, there's been a huge splintering of the drug cartels, so there's now dozens of different cartels of different sizes here. Affiliation is hard to pin down. It's constantly shifting, so that's a big question. The other one is that, you know, when we get into the question of material support, how do you define that? We know lots of U.S. businesses have been extorted by Mexican drug cartels...
CHANG: You're talking about material support of terrorism.
FREDRICK: Exactly. And so these U.S. companies who have had to pay extortion to drug cartels, they would now be officially aiding a terrorist organization. There are just lots of questions of what this would actually look like on the ground here in Mexico.
CHANG: That's reporter James Fredrick in Mexico City.
Thank you, James.
FREDRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.