Dangerous Words: The Risky Rhetoric of U.S. War on Mexican Cartels
Dangerous Words: The Risky Rhetoric of U.S. War on Mexican Cartels
Creech and Nellis Airmen coordinated a training flight together on the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 15, 2019. Aircrew with the 66th Rescue Squadron trained on the range and integrated with the MQ-9 Reaper aircrew to document the Reaper in flight. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens
Commentary / United States 13 minutes

Dangerous Words: The Risky Rhetoric of U.S. War on Mexican Cartels

As opioid overdose deaths rise in the U.S., members of Congress have broached the idea of using U.S. military force against the Mexican criminal networks that traffic in narcotics. Such notions are irresponsible, and other politicians and opinion leaders should vigorously push back against them.

When former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper revealed in his memoir that President Donald Trump had proposed the United States conduct missile strikes on drug labs in Mexico – while publicly disavowing responsibility – the news was met with astonishment, derision and disquiet. Yet, in the year since Esper relayed the story, the once outlandish notion of turning the U.S. war on drugs into more of an actual shooting war has gained traction among U.S. politicians, particularly in the Republican Party. 

Although it is tempting to dismiss the increasingly militaristic rhetoric regarding drug cartels in Mexico as bluster, the posturing carries real risks. Even amid public fatigue with decades of “forever wars”, U.S. policymakers have not entirely shed the habit of looking at the use of force as a trump card to play when they face an otherwise intractable foreign policy challenge. The flow of drugs into the U.S. – in particular the potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl – has the hallmarks of such a challenge. Between 2016 and 2021, overdoses from the drug in the U.S. more than tripled. It is hard to know exactly how many people fentanyl has killed, because other drugs that have been laced with it can also cause death, but in 2022 alone, some 83,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdoses.

War talk will only serve to strain U.S.-Mexico ties.

Against this backdrop, creating momentum behind the idea that the U.S. might use military force against criminal groups in Mexico, or even the Mexican state, is at best counterproductive and at worst genuinely dangerous. Legislation introduced primarily for the purposes of posturing risks habituating policymakers to such military options. Such stunts in Congress and bellicosity on the campaign trail increase the likelihood that a future president may regard such an attack as a real option. That is especially perilous, given that, as a practical matter, the constraints on a president’s ability to unilaterally use force are flimsy. In the meantime, war talk will only serve to strain U.S.-Mexico ties, potentially complicating the two neighbours’ economic relations and their capacity to work together in promoting safe, orderly migration and fighting transnational crime. U.S. politicians should refrain from irresponsible sloganeering, and political leaders and commentators who might otherwise be inclined to disregard it should instead push back vigorously, lest the fanciful, destructive suggestion that the U.S. would stir up an elective conflict on its own southern border become all too imaginable.

A Martial Pose

At the centre of the martial posturing in Congress is a draft law floated in the U.S. House of Representatives. In early 2023, Congressmen Dan Crenshaw and Mike Waltz, two Republicans from Texas and Florida, respectively, introduced the “AUMF [Authorisation for the Use of Military Force] Cartel Influence Resolution”. In language echoing the expansive 2001 authorisation for use of military force in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks, the legislation would empower the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those “foreign nations, foreign organizations or foreign persons affiliated with foreign organizations” that the president determines have committed specified drug-related offences or used violence to control territory for illicit means. 

If enacted, this law would afford the president broad powers to start a new series of wars with Mexican criminal networks, such as the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, among others. It both allows the president to deem which groups fall within the authorisation’s ambit and enumerates nine existing groups, including the two above, to be covered by it from the get-go. Although not a formal declaration of war, it might as well be one: the resolution would be a blank check for any administration to wage war on any entity or person meeting its specifications, without seeking further approval from (or even notifying) Congress. 

Crenshaw subsequently sought to dismiss as “hysteria” criticism that his resolution could lead the U.S. to bomb targets associated with the cartels, but the brickbats were richly deserved. The scope of the draft authorisation is breathtaking. If enacted into law, the broad formulation “necessary and appropriate force”, especially in combination with a determination (which would be in the president’s sole discretion) that Mexico constitutes a nation “affiliated” with a covered organisation, would provide authority not only to conduct missile strikes on cartels of the sort Trump mused about, but also to invade and occupy Mexico. 

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the bill’s sponsors actually wanted the measure to be enacted (a very big if), it is possible they intended the statute to sit on the shelf, unused, as a symbol of just how seriously the U.S. takes its counter-narcotics policy. That would be a dangerous gamble. While there are a handful of post-World War II use of force statutes that were enacted and then gathered dust – such as the 1955 Formosa AUMF, which authorised military force to protect Taiwan – that precedent is not on point and offers little reassurance. In that case, the evident costs of war with China were a powerful deterrent to use of this measure. The authorisation was rescinded in 1974, never having been employed. The more apt (and worrying) precedent might be Congress’s 2002 authorisation to use force in Iraq. Some Democrats said they voted for this measure to give the UN greater leverage in negotiations with Saddam Hussein about weapons inspections. Their intent mattered little when the statute became the legal foundation for a disastrous war. 

Despite backpedalling by Representative Waltz, prominent politicians have actively embraced either the draft law or uses of force along the lines of what it envisages. Former Attorney General Bill Barr endorsed the measure as a “necessary step”, and several leading Republican presidential candidates have spoken in favour of military action against Mexican cartels, including the front runner, former President Trump, as well as Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s strongest opponent, vowed to engage in “direct actions as needed to counter cartel activities” and indicated willingness to impose a naval blockade of Mexican ports. 

Worrying Gestures

While the proposed use of force authorisation is in a class of its own when it comes to reckless posturing, other recent muscle flexing raises concerns of a similar stripe.

For instance, in May, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed by voice vote the Project Precursor Act, which, among other things, purports to require the secretary of state to seek to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention to list fentanyl as a chemical weapon. In his remarks to the Committee, chairman Michael McCaul, also a Republican from Texas, said, “It’s time to classify illicit fentanyls for what they are – chemical weapons, which Communist China purposefully turns a blind eye to, and drug cartels use to perpetrate the mass killing of Americans”. 

The prospects of the legislation being enacted in its current form are unclear. The White House may well regard the mandatory directive concerning amendment of the Chemical Weapons Convention to be unconstitutional and either threaten a veto or disregard the provision if it were to pass Congress. Moreover, even if the measure becomes law, and the State Department mounts a diplomatic campaign to change the Convention, it might well not succeed. 

But whatever happens with the bill or the Convention, the Project Precursor Act’s premise – that Mexican cartels are using a chemical weapon against U.S. citizens – has potentially dangerous resonance. It could fuel a sense that the U.S. has a self-defence basis under domestic or international law to attack Mexican drug trafficking organisations even in the absence of an authorising statute. Some might even argue that claiming self-defence is not necessary. In Syria, the U.S. asserted that the use of chemical weapons – even though it was not against U.S. persons – created a sufficient national interest for President Trump to bomb sites there. While international legal experts widely regarded the U.S. strikes in 2017 and 2018 as violating international law (something the U.S. government has not denied), U.S. government lawyers deemed the “national interest” logic good enough to justify the strikes under domestic law

Similar concerns are raised by a recent letter from eighteen state attorneys general to President Joe Biden requesting that he designate fentanyl as a “weapon of mass destruction”. The signatories claim that their purpose is to galvanise interagency cooperation within the U.S. government to counter fentanyl and to frame the substance as a threat to national security, not just a matter of drug abuse. But the letter uncomfortably recalls the justification used by the George W. Bush administration to use force against Iraq. Moreover, there is a Bush-era legal opinion, written by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, concluding that the president has constitutional authority (even in the absence of congressional authorisation) to use force to counter weapons of mass destruction.

(Designating) Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organisations ... could have significant consequences for Mexican civilians.

Finally, in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, has introduced the Ending the NARCOS Act of 2023, which would designate nine Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organisations. Designation as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) carries with it a number of consequences, including the imposition of financial sanctions and the criminalisation of “material support” to the FTO, which is broadly defined to include the provision of tangible and intangible goods and services. Such a designation could have significant consequences for Mexican civilians living in areas controlled by designated drug trafficking organisations – making it more difficult for civil society organisations and other service providers to interact with them

Moreover, although by no stretch would an FTO designation authorise the use of military force, it could be read as a signal that military engagement is in the offing. The FTO designation is the most powerful tool the U.S. government has to signal that it considers an organisation to be beyond the pale. Moreover, there are notable overlaps between groups that Washington has designated as FTOs (such as al-Qaeda and affiliates like Al-Shabaab) and the groups that it is fighting within the framework of the so-called war on terror. Against this backdrop, designating cartels as “terrorist organisations”, at the same time as political leaders are deeming them to be peddling chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction, could lend momentum to the sense that they are an appropriate target for military force. 

The greatest risk of this legislative posturing and belligerent rhetoric is not that it will result in the enactment of a new war authorisation against Mexican drug trafficking organisations. The prospects of the Cartel AUMF or similar legislation receiving majority support in both houses of Congress in the near term are dim, and the White House has shown no interest in these measures. But there is some danger in that such war talk will encourage political leaders to seriously entertain a set of ideas that, as discussed below, would be enormously counterproductive. The more this set of ideas becomes normalised, the greater the risk that a future U.S. president struggling with a future version of the fentanyl crisis might be drawn to the idea of taking unilateral military action. In that unlikely – but not unimaginable – event, the weak constraints on the U.S. president’s ability to direct limited uses of force deemed to be in the national interest would afford substantial latitude to initiate hostilities.

The U.S. missile strikes on Syria in 2017 and 2018 in response to Damascus’ use of chemical weapons are again instructive. President Barack Obama’s off-the-cuff threat in 2012 that their use would cross a “red line” helped habituate the U.S. government and national security establishment to the idea that force might be a viable instrument under those circumstances. This impression persisted even though Congress failed to enact a use of force authorisation to counter Syria’s chemical weapons. When Obama’s successor Trump availed himself of this tool, the government was primed to act and the legal justification (according to his national security advisor at the time of the 2018 strikes, John Bolton) was an afterthought. The framing of the U.S. war on drugs as an actual rather than metaphorical war could have a similar effect. 

The Wrong Tool 

U.S. military intervention in Mexico would be a mistake on several levels, damaging both U.S. and regional interests, and impeding the two governments’ ability to work together in addressing common issues of safety and security. 

First, any U.S. intervention would likely have to proceed without Mexico’s cooperation. The latter has indicated that it opposes U.S. military action against the cartels, meaning both that those operations would be illegal under international law (as Mexico’s foreign ministry has pointedly noted) and that they would be uncoordinated – compromising whatever chance they might otherwise have of achieving operational success.

Unilateral action by Washington could well prompt Mexico to cease other counter-drug cooperation with the U.S.

Secondly, even if a U.S. intervention were to consist of largely symbolic strikes of the sort Trump entertained (which seems likely given the cost and optics of a large-scale war), the risk that it would backfire is enormous. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has already described the proposed cartel war authorisation as “irresponsible” and “an offence to the people of Mexico”. It is hard to imagine him or any other Mexican leader absorbing a unilateral intervention without exacting a significant price in return. Unilateral action by Washington could well prompt Mexico to cease other counter-drug cooperation with the U.S., or to reduce efforts to work with Washington to manage the movement of migrants bound for the U.S. Mexico might respond economically as well, by disrupting U.S. supply chains that have become increasingly dependent on Mexican manufacturing – a feature of the drive toward “nearshoring” as a strategy for reducing U.S. economic reliance on China. U.S. energy investments in Mexico could also be at risk. 

Thirdly, the unilateral use of force by the U.S. to combat organised crime in Mexico would reflect a failure to learn from the past. In the 1970s, as a response to the Nixon administration’s demands of the Mexican government to adopt a more severe approach in battling poppy cultivation, the U.S. and Mexico embarked on an ambitious campaign dubbed Operation Condor to eradicate the crop in question. The operation targeted for arrest the farmers who grew the crops, but failed to capture the drug traffickers who paid for the harvest and sent it to the U.S. As a result, while there was an immediate but temporary decrease in the poppy crop grown in the so-called Mexican golden triangle of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua provinces (a region that accounted for 87 per cent of the heroin consumed in the U.S. at the time), cultivation spread to other Mexican states. These included such places as Nayarit, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, where military operations had been less intense. Corruption among senior government officials allowed some of these traffickers to move their business to cities such as Guadalajara, where they created the first groups to openly use violence, not only against competitors but also against state functionaries and members of the press. 

In the past fifteen years, the number of criminal groups in Mexico has more than doubled to at least 200.

More recently, the Mérida Initiative, a security cooperation arrangement involving the U.S., Mexico and Central American states that was in effect between 2008 and 2012, failed to secure lasting counter-narcotic gains. Under the Initiative, Mexico used its military to kill or capture the leaders of criminal groups and curb their operational capacity. Yet the Initiative can hardly be called a success. The military effort may have removed crime bosses from their positions, but they were easily replaced, while the organisations they led splintered into smaller bands. In the past fifteen years, the number of criminal groups in Mexico has more than doubled to at least 200. In the period from 2006 to 2022, the Mexican murder rate has more than tripled, while the flow of drugs into the U.S. has not decreased. The expansion of drug production and trafficking in many countries in Latin America, where the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels already operate, shows the limits of the existing drug control regime and has led many analysts to declare the war on drugs a failure

What to Do?

The Mexican state will almost surely need to continue using force for some time in order to bring the wanton criminality in its territory to heel, but as Crisis Group has argued elsewhere, it needs to do so as part of a calibrated strategy. Other measures will also be required, including systematic prosecution of criminal networks – particularly of white-collar operatives who offer logistical and money laundering services on both sides of the border, and who often also provide crucial access to rogue state officials, ensuring that criminal businesses remain profitable. Breaking their impunity is essential for weakening criminal groups – something that cannot be achieved through military might alone. It is also indispensable to change the conditions that make it too easy for criminal groups to find fresh recruits. Providing those susceptible to joining criminal ranks – predominantly young people bereft of educational and legal job opportunities – with alternative pathways requires concerted efforts by Mexico and international partners. But it represents a sharp tool to make a dent in the capacity of criminal leaders to continue operating.

Mexico could use U.S. support for many of these efforts. U.S. political leaders can and should explore improving bilateral cooperation with Mexico as well as multilateral efforts, including with China, a key source of fentanyl precursors. U.S. policymakers should also explore expanding and strengthening harm reduction services domestically. What they should not do is threaten war or make gestures that could help prepare the ground for it while souring the U.S.-Mexican relationship. Tough-guy posturing against the cartels may seem like good politics, but it is unserious and heedless as policy. Lawmakers, policymakers and opinion leaders should push back against these irresponsible proposals lest they gain undeserved and dangerous legitimacy.

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