Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R. Texas) and Michael Waltz (R. Florida) drafted a bill in January advocating for U.S. military involvement in Mexico, citing “terrorist cartels,” sparking heated debates across the country. While violence from various criminal factions has been a growing problem for Mexico and, by extension, the United States, American military involvement is merely an expensive way to launch an endless war in a region that poses a real national security vulnerability. Rather than treating this “cartel cancer”with a blunt butcher’s knife, the United States should pursue new approaches to securing the border, strengthening domestic law enforcement, and peacefully investing in protecting Mexican democracy.
Cartels traffic drugs and human beings in vast quantities, contributing to systemic sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, and the ongoing opioid epidemic. The true scale of these criminal networks is unclear, but tens of thousands of people have filed trafficking cases in recent years as the U.S. government attempts to stem the tide. Cartels are responsible for providing hundreds of thousands of kilos of illicit drugs such as cocaine or fentanyl. These international criminal organizations have also become increasingly bold, murdering American men, women, and children, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of native Mexican citizens, and even terrifying populations into submission with widely publicized beheadings.
Past American solutions have included pressuring the Mexican government to deploy hundreds of thousands of soldiers, providing billions in aid over the past decade, and even building physical barriers along parts of the southern border. But the cartels still thrive, and these methods aren’t sustainable. President Andres Obrador has been slowly eroding Mexico’s fragile democratic traditions, meaning continued militarization of the state could take a sharp turn for the worse, politically speaking.
The Merida Initiative was the U.S. government’s attempt to strengthen collaboration with Mexico by providing funding and training for security operations, hopefully resulting in greater border protection. It resulted in training soldiers who left the military and joined cartels. The initiative ultimately failed because it only sought to limit the availability of illegal services (drugs, sex, guns, etc.) rather than addressing demand. Physical barriers on the borders lacked the bipartisan support necessary to reach a meaningful scale, locking the project in perpetual political debate.
It may seem hopeless, and many Americans are growing impatient, hence why some American officials advocate for military intervention. But this is not a long term viable option for stability and peace.
The reasons American military intervention wouldn’t work are varied. One of them is that Mexican nationalism has been on the rise. In the early Trump administration, Professor Morales Ramírez of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México warned that based on America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mexico “would not allow” any American intervention.
U.S. troop deployments will almost certainly be seen by the people as a violation of Mexican sovereignty, challenging their pride and functionally rehabilitating the cartels as a means of defying American paternalism or even colonialism. Any intervention could become a protracted conflict with Mexican civilian support for the cartels.
Currently, Crenshaw and Waltz’s bill only discusses drone strikes and cyberwarfare tactics, but cartels are so entrenched that they have survived during an all-out war with the Mexican government. It is naive to imagine that substituting Mexican planes for American planes will dislodge the cartels. Even getting lightly involved would place the United States on a slippery slope toward indefinite troop deployment.
The U.S. military involvement might actually weaken existing Mexican security forces by increasing their dependence on American troops, as occurred in Afghanistan. There is a real risk that security forces may dissolve and join existing cartels or even start their own. A key example of this occurred with de-Baathification and the disillusionment of the Iraqi military in 2004. U.S. military involvement in Mexico threatens to replicate some of our worst strategic errors.
Large cartels like the Sinaloa Cartel or Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) have a strong presence within the United States. This presence is a unique danger of cartels without real precedent in America’s other recent forever wars. Military intervention in Mexico could trigger attacks on American civilians within our mainland territory.
Today, the cartel’s presence is noticeable but could be worsened once they have nothing to lose. The presence of cartels in America also denotes the transnational nature of the problem. Mexican cartels have established strongholds in Guatemala and Columbia. Focusing on Mexico is reductionistic at best, like trying to kill an octopus by cutting off one tentacle.
Lastly, similar to the backlash experienced by American Japanese or American Muslims following Pearl Harbor and 9/11, there is the potential that U.S. involvement in Mexico could spark domestic prejudice or even violence against law-abiding Mexican-Americans. Mexican-Americans have already experienced this type of ethnic prejudice in America, especially after the politicization of the border issue, and war could significantly worsen it.
Military intervention in Mexico is a self-destructive answer to a uniquely complicated national security issue. In light of strained international and domestic tensions, this approach would require greater resource commitment to be successful, to say nothing of the escalatory risks.
A total commitment to hammering cartels to death with military operations would require the cooperation of governments from Canada to Peru, the creation of new branches of the military, and some severe cleaning at high government levels. Even if a reform at that scale were to go smoothly, it would still have massive risks of escalation and violence at home.
The United States could take a more realistic approach without such transformative requirements and human risks. Instead, it can focus on cutting red tape that hinders domestic drug control and immigration agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These agencies face serious hurdles in apprehending violent criminals and drug loads, and the politicization of the border issue has only worsened this conundrum. The United States can take some measures to address the roots of what allows cartels to profit—strict immigration and narcotics laws.
Steps toward decriminalizing certain narcotics to remove the demand for cartel services and vastly improving systems for legal immigration would steal the appeal of cartels to consumers out from under them. These efforts can appeal to worn-down Americans who are increasingly frustrated by the constant deluge of news about drugs and violence coming from the south, averting drastic measures such as military deployment in Mexico.
Garrett Ehinger is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, majoring in Biomedical Science. He was the Director of the China Lab at his university, a recipient of the EA UGAP stipend award, and has studied Chinese culture and history for over a decade.