We shouldn’t use the military to fight Mexico’s drug cartels

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America’s lawmakers and policymakers are in denial about the true cause of the country’s deepening drug crisis. Like children who refuse to accept reality, they throw tantrums over their failure to win America’s longest war, the War on Drugs.

Political leaders have launched a flurry of proposals to lure the US military into waging an all-out war against Mexican drug cartels to contain the fentanyl crisis.

“I have legislation that I will soon introduce to turn drug cartels into foreign terrorist organizations,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Fox News this week. “We have to bring our military in to stop this, we have to destroy these labs on the ground in Mexico … the law enforcement model isn’t working, we’re literally being attacked — more Americans are being killed by Mexican drug cartels than ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Germans and Japanese united on their homeland.”

Graham has announced he will introduce a Senate version of an Authorization for the Use of Military Forces (AUMF) against Mexico – Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has already introduced a version in the House of Representatives.

And on Thursday, news broke that former President Donald Trump has instructed his advisers to come up with “battle plans” to “attack Mexico” if he is re-elected.

Former Attorney General William P. Barr fired an early, striking shot at cartels in a March 2 comment Wall Street Journal.

Former Attorney General William Barr.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

“America can no longer tolerate drug-terror cartels,” Barr asserted. “From safe havens in Mexico, their industrial production of deadly drugs is flooding our country with this poison. It is high time to take decisive action to counter this outrage.”

Barr praised a joint resolution introduced in the House of Representatives that would authorize the President to use the US military against cartels in Mexico. The threat human trafficking organizations pose to the United States, Barr emphasized, “requires that we address them primarily as a threat to national security and not as a matter of law enforcement.”

“These drug terrorist groups are more like ISIS than the American mafia,” Barr wrote. He later confirmed that he would use “Special Ops Units” for missions in Mexico.

“Governments cannot stop people from using these drugs. Governments can only make drug use more dangerous by driving it underground on an unregulated and deadly black market.”

Barr did not want to give Mexican officials a veto over the deployment of foreign troops in their country. “It would be good for the Mexicans to cooperate,” Barr told Fox News host Martha MacCallum. “And I think that will only come when the Mexicans know that we are ready to do it with or without their cooperation,” he added.

It wasn’t long before other militant drug warriors embraced the latest political panacea.

Just days after Barr’s op-ed, Senator Graham announced he would introduce legislation that would designate the Mexican cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations” and authorize the president to use military force against them. Pending likely objections, another drug warrior, Rep. Mike Walsh (R-FL), declared a military offensive “would not involve sending U.S. troops to fight the cartels.” Instead, Walsh said, a US military response would likely include “cyber, drones, intelligence” and “naval assets.”


Mexican Army personnel interact at a seized fentanyl pills manufacturing center and methamphetamine laboratory in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico, February 14, 2023.

Mexican Ministry of Defense via Reuters

These tantrums will only make the overdose problem worse. The current scourge of fentanyl is just the latest manifestation of what drug policy analysts call “the iron law of prohibition.” The abridged version of the Iron Law states, “The tougher the law enforcement, the tougher the drug.” Enforcement of the ban gives those who market banned substances an incentive to develop stronger forms that are easier to smuggle in smaller sizes and in more units for Sale can be split.

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The iron law of prohibition is why cannabis THC concentrations have increased over the years. It introduced crack cocaine to the cocaine market. And because of this, fentanyl has replaced heroin as the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States. As a result, distributors are now fortifying fentanyl with the veterinary tranquilizer xylazine (“Tranq”) and may be in the process of replacing fentanyl with the more potent synthetic opioid isotonitazene (“iso”). By doubling down on law enforcement guarantees, we’ll be fighting even deadlier drugs in the not-too-distant future.

But the US leadership has learned nothing. They have previously flirted with militarizing the anti-drug campaign in Mexico. Donald Trump’s Defense Secretary Mike Esper said his boss asked him at least twice in 2020 about the possibility of launching missiles into Mexico to “destroy the drug labs” and wipe out the cartels.

Using the US military against targets in Mexico was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has already condemned recent “irresponsible proposals” for US military action against the cartels. Even if Washington can ultimately get López Obrador to tolerate such an intrusion, a furious backlash from other factions in Mexico is all but certain. The likelihood of drone or missile strikes killing innocent bystanders (as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia) could create a crisis in bilateral relations.

American advocates of the military option point to Washington’s success in dismantling the Cali and Medellin cartels in Colombia around the turn of the century. However, this episode proved to be a hollow victory.


Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Luis Cortes/Reuters

The center of the illegal drug trade simply shifted north to Mexico and Central America. A similarly hollow victory later occurred with the capture of “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of Mexico’s dominant Sinaloa cartel. A multi-year wave of violence followed Washington’s supposed triumph as new competitors vie to control the lucrative drug routes into America.

Our guides speak of a fentanyl “invasion” or “epidemic.” But these are inappropriate metaphors. The drugs do not “invade” our country like predators. Nor are they like viruses that infect and jump from host to host. The flood of fentanyl and other dangerous drugs is a response to the strong demand for psychoactive substances by American drug users.

Governments cannot stop people from using these drugs. Governments can only make drug use more dangerous by driving it underground on an unregulated and deadly black market.

If policymakers are serious about reducing overdose deaths but lack the political will to end prohibition, they should at least refocus their energies on expanding harm reduction strategies. This means repealing drug paraphernalia laws that make it illegal to distribute drug test strips and devices, as well as clean syringes. It also means repealing 21 USC Section 856 (the so-called “Crack House” statute) so the US can join the rest of the developed world in allowing overdose prevention centers that have been saving lives for nearly 40 years.


Packages of fentanyl, mostly in powder form, and methamphetamine that US Customs and Border Protection say they seized from a truck traveling from Mexico to Arizona.

Courtesy of US Customs and Border Protection via Reuters

If the US intervenes militarily in Mexico in a vain attempt to win the unwinnable drug war, the outcome is likely to resemble the chaotic tragedy in Afghanistan.

Like water in a boulder-laden stream, the drugs will continue to make their way downstream to consumers, despite Washington’s determined efforts. Further militarizing the drug war is a delusional fantasy that will ruin America’s relations with its southern neighbor.

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https://www.thedailybeast.com/we-shouldnt-use-the-military-to-fight-mexicos-drug-cartels We shouldn’t use the military to fight Mexico’s drug cartels

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