By ”El Huaso” for Borderland Beat

Last weekend, four Americans were shot at and kidnapped by armed criminals shortly after crossing into the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, as reported by Borderland Beat. Video of the event surfaced online shortly after, showing criminals dragging the victims bodies into the back of a pickup truck and speeding off. Yesterday morning, Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal Anaya reported that two of the victims were rescued, and two are dead.

This event has drawn the focus of US politicians and the media at a critical moment when current assumptions about US-Mexico security cooperation are under challenge by calls to declare Mexico’s security an issue of terrorism and utilize the US Military.

So far, the details of the event are hazy. A US official told CNN that the victims were attacked based on mistaken identity. According to a family member of one of the victims, the four ventured to Mexico accompanying a friend who sought cosmetic surgery. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated yesterday that they went to Mexico to buy medication, when there was a confrontation between groups.

In a press conference yesterday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that US President Biden and his team are “closely following the assault” and called the event “unacceptable”. López Obrador responded in today’s morning press conference that his administration is fighting for a safer Mexico.

Ken Salazar, the US Ambassador to Mexico, posted a statement from the US Embassy on his Twitter account, expressing condolences to the American victims and a Mexican women who was killed by a stray bullet. The statement also mentioned US concern at the Gulf Cartel’s control of La Frontera Chica, a region along the border – a rare mention of a specific criminal organization, as State Department communications often speak generally about security.

The US press is also fixated on the story. Journalist José Díaz Briseño posted on Twitter that all major US morning shows; NBC Today Show, CBS Mornings, and ABC Good Morning America were focused on the Matamoros kidnapping story, a rare occurrence for the US press, which often neglects to cover Mexico.

Today the story earned front page coverage in newspapers across the US. Mexican journalist Dolia Estévez noted that much of the coverage focuses on portraying Mexico as a lawless nation.

Further, over 450,000 tweets mentioned either #Mexico, #Matamoros or #Tamaulipas, an indication of the reach of the story. 

This focus occurs at a critical moment when calls for designation of criminal groups in Mexico as terrorist organizations is increasingly common, and some US politicians, mostly Republican, are advocating for a US-led militarized response to insecurity in Mexico.

Last week, former US Attorney General Bill Barr argued for heavy handed US military response to Mexico’s insecurity in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal titled: “The U.S. Must Defeat Mexico’s Drug Cartels – The narco-terrorists are more like ISIS than the American mafia”. 

Barr is not alone in his calls for increased and reinvented US focus on security in Mexico.

In early February, the attorneys general of 21 states signed a letter asking President Biden to designate Mexican criminal groups as terrorist groups for their role in fueling the American drug crisis, and their capacity and willingness to use violence. 

Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican candidate for the 2024 Presidential election, stated on Twitter that the US cannot ignore the role of cartels in the fentanyl overdose crisis, and should use the Military to “defend America’s home turf”.

Before this, many legislators and politicians from the Republican party have submitted legislation and advocated to designate Mexican criminal groups as terrorist groups. This is not a new trend, but its frequency is increasing. In fact, over the last 20 years, the quantity of legislation submitted to Congress with keywords “Mexico” and ”cartel” increased 580%, from five bills submitted in the 107th Congress (2001-2002), to 34 in the 117th Congress (2021-2022).*

In this same time period, the quantity of legislation submitted to Congress with keywords “Mexico” and ”cartel” and “terror*” increased 350%, from eight bills submitted in the 107th Congress (2001-2002), to 36 in the 117th Congress (2021-2022).**

The vast majority of these bills are submitted by Republican politicians. 

While this conversation is gaining political momentum, the topic is hotly debated, and faces fierce opposition from the government of Mexico and from some security experts, who argue the comparison of criminal groups to terrorist organizations is a confusion. Further, it is important to note that this is a highly politicized conversation, with determinations of narco terrorism and military involvement in Mexico largely dependent on political affiliation.

Regardless of the debate, the violent kidnapping of US citizens, amplified by social media, occurs at a time when focus from US media and politicians on insecurity in Mexico is supercharged.