A Bad Idea Resurfaces: Using the US Military Against Mexico’s Drug Cartels

There has been a recent flurry of proposals to have the U.S. military launch a full-scale war against Mexican drug cartels – primarily to stem the alleged fentanyl crisis. Former Attorney General William P. Barr initiated the latest campaign with an op-ed in the March 2, 2023, Wall Street Journal. "America can no longer tolerate narco-terrorist cartels," Barr raged. "Operating from havens in Mexico, their production of deadly drugs on an industrial scale is flooding our country with this poison. The time is long past to deal with this outrage decisively."

He praised a Joint Resolution that had been introduced in the House of Representatives that would authorize the president to deploy the US military against cartels inside Mexico. The danger that the trafficking organizations pose to the United States, Barr insisted, requires treating them as "national-security threats, not a law-enforcement matter." According to Barr, such "narco-terrorist groups are more like ISIS than like the American mafia."

He later confirmed that he wanted to use "special ops units" for missions in Mexico. Perhaps the most alarming and provocative aspect of Barr’s scheme was that it would not even allow Mexican officials to have a veto over the operation of foreign troops inside their own country. "It would be good to have the Mexicans’ cooperation," Barr conceded, but "I think that will only come when the Mexicans know that we’re willing to do it with or without their cooperation."

Other militant drug warriors promptly embraced the latest policy panacea. Just days after Barr’s op-ed appeared, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced that he would introduce legislation designating the Mexican cartels as "foreign terrorist organizations" and giving the president an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against them. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) had proposed such a step in November 2022, and he now renewed that call.

Such dreadful ideas are not new. US leaders, most notably President Donald Trump, flirted with the military option before. In 2019, Trump reacted to a cartel assault on an American family with a tweet that "this is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR (sic) on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth." In his memoirs, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, Mike Esper, recalled that his boss asked him at least twice in 2020 about the feasibility of launching missiles into Mexico to "destroy the drug labs" and wipe out the cartels. The president considered such a drastic step to be justified because Mexican leaders were "not in charge of their own country."

Not surprisingly, Trump quickly joined the current campaign to attack the cartels. He explicitly embraced the congressional proposals for an AUMF, giving them additional prominence. Rolling Stone reported that Trump "has been asking policy advisers for a range of military options aimed at taking on Mexican drug cartels, including strikes that are not sanctioned by Mexico’s government, according to two sources familiar with the situation."

If true, that development significantly escalates the policy stakes. Public opinion polls show that Trump is currently the leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. If he regains the White House in the 2024 election, it is likely that the United States will initiate a military intervention in Mexico.

It is not entirely clear just how extensive a military assault on the cartels the drug warriors contemplate. Options include US Special Forces units working in concert with Mexican troops or operating covertly, attacks employing drone and missile strikes, or (less likely) a full scale US invasion. Rep. Mike Walsh (R-FL), a sponsor of the House AUMF legislation, contends that a military offensive "wouldn’t involve sending US troops to fight the cartels." However, a US military response would include “cyber, drones, intelligence assets, naval assets.”

Even the most restrained interventionist scenarios would create nasty tensions with Mexico. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador immediately condemned the latest "irresponsible proposals" for US military action against the cartels. Even if Washington ultimately can bully Lopez Obrador into tolerating such an intrusion, angry reactions from other political factions – and from the Mexican public – is nearly certain. The likelihood of drone or missile strikes killing innocent bystanders (as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia) could create an outright crisis in bilateral relations.

Sending troops (even a limited number of Special Forces) would be decidedly more provocative. Mexicans have painful memories of previous US military invasions going back to the Mexican War in the 1840s when James Polk’s administration amputated the northern half of their country. Smaller, but still infuriating, incursions took place in the twentieth century. During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, US forces occupied Vera Cruz and latter pursued rebel leader Pancho Villa in northern Mexico. Americans may believe that such episodes constitute irrelevant, "ancient history," but many Mexicans do not. A new armed crusade by the "Colossus of the North" against the cartels could easily revive those painful national memories and poison attitudes toward the United States.

Drug warriors refuse to face a depressing, inconvenient truth. Governments are not able to dictate whether people use fentanyl or other destructive substances. Such vices have been part of human culture throughout history. Governments can determine only whether reputable businesses or violent criminal gangs are the suppliers. A prohibition strategy guarantees that it will be the latter – with all the accompanying violence and corruption. The ongoing bloody struggles among rival Mexican cartels to control the lucrative trafficking routes to the United States merely confirm that historical pattern.

Using the US military against targets in Mexico will not change economic incentives or human behavior. Launching an armed crusade against the drug cartels was a bad idea when Trump pondered it as president, and it is a bad idea now. It would severely damage US relations with Mexico while accomplishing nothing worthwhile.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. During a 37-year career at the Cato Institute, Dr. Carpenter also served in various policy positions. He is the author of more than 1,200 articles, as well as 13 books, including The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America (2012).

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).