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Border sheriffs coalition says 'time will tell' if Abbott’s terrorist designation bears fruit

Abbott has waged a battle against Biden’s border policy and Mexican cartels since early 2021. But he waited until last week to create a cartel division at Texas DPS.

By Julián Aguilar, The Texas Newsroom

When Gov. Greg Abbott in early 2021 announced Operation Lone Star, a state-funded, multi-billion-dollar effort to secure the state’s southern border, he warned of the dangers Mexican cartels posed to Texas.

“The Operation integrates [Texas Department of Public Safety] with the Texas National Guard and deploys air, ground, marine, and tactical border security assets to high threat areas to deny Mexican Cartels and other smugglers the ability to move drugs and people into Texas,” a  statement from his office released that month says.

Abbott followed that up the  next month by imploring President Biden to designate Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations, an act he said would further aid the federal government in its fight against the criminal enterprises.

Nothing came of that request and last week Abbott went on his own, declaring Mexican cartels that produce and traffic fentanyl as terrorist organizations under his official power as governor. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has led to  countless fatal overdoses in recent years, including more than 1,600 deaths from the drug in Texas in 2021.

Abbott’s declaration establishes a Mexican Cartel Division within the  Texas Fusion Center at the Texas Department of Public Safety, which his office said will conduct “multi-jurisdictional investigations with local law enforcement and other states”

When asked by The Texas Newsroom why he didn’t make the designation sooner however, his office only repeated that the Biden administration was doing nothing and cited the statistics from 2021.

“Since President Biden refuses to secure the border and protect Americans from this national crisis, Texas is stepping up to stop Mexican drug cartels from targeting innocent Americans with counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl and ‘rainbow fentanyl’ pills,” said press secretary Renae Eze. “Governor Abbott issued 7 orders for DPS to increase their efforts, including establishing a Mexican Cartel Division within the Texas Fusion Center [at DPS], conducting multi-jurisdictional investigations with local law enforcement and other states, and enhancing southbound criminal interdiction operations.”

Abbott is up for reelection in less than seven weeks, facing off against Democrat Beto O’Rourke in November. His border security policies feature prominently in his campaign. The incumbent also hasn’t hesitated to expand Operation Lone Star’s scope since its inception for other purposes.

In  April, Abbott ordered Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to conduct inspections of commercial vehicles coming into Texas in response to the Biden administration’s plan to end Title 42, a pandemic-era rule used to quickly expel migrants back to Mexico. The inspections led to delays that exceeded 12 hours at some ports and led to billions of dollars  in losses for the state economy. Texas DPS officials later said that zero migrants or illegal drugs were found during the operation.

Abbott has also bused  on the state taxpayers’ dime migrants to so-called “sanctuary cities” that include New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago. As of Monday, Abbott’s office said he’s sent more than 11,000 migrants out of Texas on charter buses.

When asked again why the governor waited 18 months after Operation Lone Star was initiated to make the cartel designation, the office had a similar response.

“In April 2021, Governor Abbott sent a letter to President Biden and VP Harris urging them to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. And they’ve done nothing,” Eze said. “That’s why the Governor issued his executive order this week designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations and sent a letter to the President and VP calling on them to do the same.”

William “Clint” McDonald, the  executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs’ Coalition and the Southwestern Sheriffs’ Border Coalition, told The Texas Newsroom that time will tell if the declaration was right. But he added that he’s grateful for any additional help law enforcement has.

“We see all across our country that the fentanyl drug is killing so many and we’re in the agreement that lives are being lost on both sides of the international border,” he said. “When a tool is used it’s a good thing for everyone. Whether it’s the timing is right or not, that’s yet to be seen but we hope everything we do will preserve the dignity of life.”

“Terrorist” designation effort not new to lawmakers

For more than 10 years, Texas Republicans have been trying to label Mexican cartels terrorists in an effort to try and cripple their empires. The effort, however, has been met with opposition.

In 2011, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul McCaul’s filed  HR 1270. The bill sought to target the Arellano Félix Organization, Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana, the Beltran Leyva, Sinaloa, Juárez and Gulf cartels as terrorist organizations. The cartels were responsible for thousands of deaths in Mexico under former President Felipe Calderon.

The legislation would have permitted the federal government to freeze funds tied to the organizations and made someone convicted of aiding the cartels eligible for 15 additional years of prison time — or a possible life sentence, depending on the offense.

The proposal was met with backlash from lawmakers who said the legislation would weaken the United States’ relationship with Mexico and hinder that country’s ability to wage its own battles against organized crime.

McCaul's office declined to comment on Abbott's designation or whether the congressman's office has pursued its own effort again since 2011.