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Trump says U.S. to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups

Mexican authorities were seeking a high-level meeting with their U.S. counterparts Tuesday following President Trump’s revelation that Washington planned to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations.

The statement — made by Trump in an interview with Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host — appeared to stun Mexican officials, who have already declared their opposition to the idea.

“Absolutely, they will be designated,” Trump said of the Mexican cartels, according to a transcript of the radio interview posted on O’Reilly’s website. “Look, we are losing 100,000 people a year to what is happening and what is coming through from Mexico.”

Trump’s comments came almost three weeks after gunmen in northern Mexico killed six children and three women, U.S. citizens and members of a Mormon fundamentalist group residing in Mexico’s Sonora state. Mexican officials have said that the victims may have been ambushed in a case of mistaken identity in a zone where rival drug gangs battle for turf.

Those killings highlighted the ongoing cartel violence that has cost tens of thousands of lives in Mexico in recent years.

Many in Mexico, however, worry that a formal U.S. designation of Mexican cartels as terrorist groups could lead to greater U.S. interference in Mexico’s internal affairs.

“Mexico will not allow any action that signifies violation of its national sovereignty,” Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said Tuesday in a Twitter message following Trump’s comments. “Mutual respect is the basis of cooperation.”

Trump’s comments immediately ignited an uproar from Mexican lawmakers and other critics, while the country’s foreign ministry said that Ebrard was seeking to clarify the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

“Given the good relations that exist between both countries, the Government of Mexico will seek a high-level meeting as soon as possible to present the position of Mexico and to learn the points of view of authorities in the United States,” Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

Mexican authorities have repeatedly stressed that illicit drugs shipped via Mexico are destined for the U.S. market and that guns and cash bound for cartels enter Mexico from U.S. territory.

The government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — a leftist who took office nearly a year ago — has maintained cordial relations with the Trump administration and has cooperated with Washington on a number of thorny bilateral issues, notably immigration.

It was unclear if the State Department — which is the U.S. government agency tasked with designating groups as “foreign terrorist organizations” — had yet alerted Congress of its intention to name Mexican drug cartels as terrorist groups.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.