By ”El Huaso” for Borderland Beat

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data from 2022 reveals that far fewer individuals flagged on US government databases as terrorists were encountered at ports of entry in the Southern Border of the United States than at the Northern, challenging recent discourse claiming that Mexico presents a terrorist threat to the United States. However, a significant number of non ports of entry TSDS encounters were recorded in 2022 at the Southern Border, while none were recorded at the Northern.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics on encounters with known and suspected terrorists as well as their affiliates suggest that the terrorist threat from Mexico’s border is exaggerated. In the Fiscal Year 2022, just 67 (17.6%) of the 380 terrorist encounters logged by CBP occurred at the Southern border with Mexico. The remaining 313 were flagged at the Northern border with Canada. As Mexican Ambassador Esteban Moctezuma noted at a Wilson Center event last year, this figure is especially notable as the Southern border is far more stringently controlled and monitored.

These figures are even more notable when comparing total CBP encounters in that same time period. In FY2022, 2,378,944 individuals were encountered at the Southwest Border, compared to just 109,535 individuals at the Northern Border. Essentially, 83% of terrorist encounters are coming from the border crossing where just 4.4% of individuals are encountered.

The low number of TSDS encounters at the Southern border for 2022 are the lowest since at least FY 2017, the earliest year with available CBP data. The 2022 count is notably lower than 2021 and 2020, years when border traffic diminished due to Covid-19 related border closures.

The data for TSDS encounters between Ports of Entry displays a concerning increase. CBP data shows that in 2022, there were 98 TSDS encounters, a staggering 553% increase from the 15 in 2021. For comparison, in 2022, there were no TSDS encounters between ports of entry noted at the Northern border. Between 2017 and 2021, there were just 11 encounters, revealing how quickly this issue emerged. 

Source: El Huaso with CBP data

The comparison and suggestion of equivalency between terrorism and organized crime is increasingly part of American public discourse. In the most recent in a wave of influential figures in government and the media who have made similar suggestions, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a tell-all book, where he describes parts of Mexico as possible “nests for terrorism”, and warned that Mexico could become a launching point for attacks against the United States.

Just last week, 21 American attorney’s generals petitioned Biden to designate Mexican criminal groups as terrorists, due to their fentanyl trafficking, and use of violence.

This is not a new concern, and echoes United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) General Glen VanHerk’s controversial 2021 assessment that organized criminal groups control 35% of Mexico. However, despite concerns, links between terrorist organizations and Mexican criminal groups are sparse. Apart from Hezbollah’s murky attempts to establish a connection in Mexico in the 2000s, the crime-terror nexus fizzled out at least a decade ago.

This point is demonstrated further in the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2020, which states that: “There was no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States in 2020“.

At the same time, a flurry of American lawmakers have submitted legislation and signed orders which intend to designate certain Mexican organized crime groups as terrorist organizations. For example, in September 2022, spurred by rising fentanyl overdoses, Texas Governor Greg Abbot signed an executive order designating several Mexican criminal groups as terrorist organizations, and asked President Biden to do the same on the federal level.

Mass displays of violence in Mexico mimic those of terrorist groups. Photo: Debate
Authors note: An earlier version of this story did not mention the TSDS encounters between ports of entry. This has now been added.

CBP Southwest Land Border Encounters

CBP Nationwide Encounters

CBP Enforcement Statistics Fiscal Year 2023 – TSDS

Wilson Center Mexico Institute Event Remarks

KFOX TV – Greg Abbot Exec Order

The Yucatan Times

The Washington Post

State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2020

Washington Institute