- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lawmakers say it is time to treat Latin American drug cartels like terrorist organizations, highlighting alarm about possible links between the two kinds of groups after Iran’s alleged efforts to recruit drug lords to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington.

“We must stop looking at the drug cartels today solely from a law- enforcement perspective,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

She urged officials to “consider designating these narcotrafficking networks as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and their leaders as Specially Designated Nationals.”

The foiling of a plot by Tehran’s Qods Force militia to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to murder the Saudi ambassador by bombing a D.C. restaurant underscores that drug gangs “are providing material support and assistance” to terrorist groups and sponsoring states, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said during a hearing.

Rep. Connie Mack, Florida Republican, went further, calling the Mexican cartels “an insurgency that uses terrorist activities to further [their] cause.”

Some specialists were skeptical about his call. But in answering questions from the two lawmakers, William Brownfield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement at the State Department, acknowledged “that many of the facts on the ground, the things that are being done by those [trafficking] organizations are consistent with what we would call either terrorism or insurgency in other countries.”

Moreover, he said, the apparent overtures from Tehran’s Qods Force to what they thought was a Mexican cartel is just one piece in a large jigsaw puzzle of Iranian threats to stability and security in the region.

Iran is reaching out to populist, anti-American governments in the region, especially the leftist regime of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, he said.

Mr. Brownfield, who was the U.S. ambassador in Caracas for what he called “three very long years,” noted that when he arrived there in 2004, there were fewer than 10 diplomats assigned to the Iranian Embassy; three years later, there were more than 40.

On Wednesday, a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee heard testimony from a former senior Drug Enforcement Administration official, Michael Braun, who said Iran’s growing diplomatic presence in the region often has been used as cover for members of its secretive militias, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Qods Force.

On Thursday, Philip Goldberg, head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the State Department’s intelligence arm, explained that another large piece of the puzzle is the activities of Hezbollah, the extremist Lebanese Shiite militia designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and Europe and sponsored by Iran.

“Their operations are largely in the fundraising area,” he said of Hezbollah, and especially focused on the region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay all intersect.

“We do not know of operational activities,” he said, “but we watch that very closely.”

He said the foiled terrorism plot showed “more … Iran’s interest in working in Mexico or doing something in Mexico than the other way around.”

Indeed, some experts who have studied the problem of drug violence in the region for years were skeptical of the call to use tactics that have succeeded against terrorist groups.

For instance, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Times that “the Mexican government would find it intolerable … owing to domestic political sensitivities,” for the U.S. military to conduct unilateral operations on its territory, as it has in Pakistan or Yemen.

Moreover, she said, criminal gangs tend to have “a much greater ability” than terrorist groups to generate new leaders, meaning that “decapitation … by drone strike” would have only “a fraction of the effectiveness it has” when used against terrorist groups.

Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also appeared skeptical.

“It is critical that our policy toward the region be based on solid facts,” he said, “yet we sometimes seem to be chasing ghosts or creating caricatures of security threats.”

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at 123@example.com.

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