The Republican Party may be increasingly divided on support for Ukraine, but it is uniting around the idea of launching military raids into Mexico.
Ron DeSantis led the way in last week’s debate when he said that he’d send special forces into Mexico to hit the drug cartels on Day One, a pledge that, if taken seriously, would mean he’s committed to setting off a historic diplomatic crisis with a neighboring country in the opening hours of his presidency.
Other candidates, including Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, have struck a similar bellicose tone.
The aggressive posture is an understandable reaction to the intolerable fentanyl crisis that takes about 70,000 American lives annually, and the porousness and disorder at the Southern border that is unworthy of a great nation.
Promising military action is a way of signaling resolve, and of tapping into the sentiment on the populist right that we are supposedly more protective of Ukraine’s borders than our own (of course, we only began paying attention to Ukraine’s borders when they were violated by a massive Russian military invasion destabilizing to Europe).
In the right circumstances, it could be that military operations actually make sense, and simply the threat of them could, if wielded deftly, be a way of wringing more cooperation out of the Mexican government.
But we aren’t going to drone or raid our way to a secure Southern border. The frustrating reality is that there is no alternative to working with the Mexican government, which is going to be protective of its territory and national pride, especially vis-a-vis the giant to its north.
The drug cartels are a hellish problem. They traffic drugs and people into the United States and have their tentacles deep in the Mexican government, buying off and assassinating officials as necessary.
Grinding down such organizations that are deeply embedded in a society isn’t a matter of a few raids on headquarters or labs or decapitation strikes. Defeating them requires more of a war of counterinsurgency, denying them safe quarter and public support in a long-term, multifaceted fight ranging from military action to anti-corruption initiatives.
This is a tall order, although we managed to pull it off in Colombia. The partnership known as Plan Colombia — at a cost of $10 billion over the course of more than a decade — provided wide-ranging U.S. support from military advisors to economic aid that helped pull the Andean nation back from the brink. But Colombia was truly desperate to defeat the FARC guerrillas and drug cartels and itself did the heavy lifting. We had the ideal partner in President Alvaro Uribe, who was completely committed to the fight.
Nothing similar is in the offing in Mexico now. It’s not as though the government has always been passive. The cartels had a working arrangement with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ran Mexico effectively as a one-party state for decades, but the PRI’s grip was broken in 2000 when former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party won the presidency.
This disrupted the live-and-let-live approach to the cartels, and in 2006, President Felipe Calderón declared open war on them and threw the military into the fight. Violence spiked and hasn’t relented since. With U.S. assistance as part of the so-called Mérida Initiative, he took down many of the top kingpins. Yet the cartels, after fragmenting into smaller groups, obviously didn’t go anywhere, and Calderón wasn’t able to do anything meaningful about the endemic problem of corruption.
Now, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO for short, has adopted a policy of “hugs, not bullets,” which has worked about as well as it sounds. He’s promised to take on the socioeconomic causes of organized crime and demilitarize the conflict with the cartels. But violence is still at very high levels, and the Mexican state is as compromised as ever by the cartels.
AMLO himself has, as the Texas Public Policy Foundation puts it, demonstrated “a clear and convincing pattern of political complicity, at best, with criminal-cartel operations.” He has resisted cooperation with the U.S. and, in a speech back in April at an event commemorating the American occupation of Veracruz a century ago, warned that if the U.S. moved against the cartels, “it will not only be the sailors and soldiers who will defend Mexico — all Mexicans will defend Mexico.”
So, if nothing has worked in Mexico, why not take the matter directly into our hands?
Even if raids were enough — and, again, they wouldn’t be — the problem is that Mexico has points of leverage against us if it wants to retaliate for what it considers humiliating violations of its sovereignty.
It’s not as though the Mexican special forces unit, the Fuerza Especial de Reacción or FER, is going to take Nogales, Ariz. But if there is a real breakdown in U.S.-Mexican relations, the Mexican government could, for instance, end all immigration cooperation with us. If it stopped policing its Southern and Northern borders and refused to accept repatriations of its own citizens, it’d make the border crisis much, much worse.
Our first priority should be healing ourselves by ending President Joe Biden’s malign neglect of the border. The cartels benefit from, but aren’t the cause of, the wave of illegal immigration driven by economic incentives. If the cartels disappeared tomorrow, migrants would still be coming here in massive numbers to try to improve their lot. The only way to diminish the flow is to do things within our power to turn migrants back and keep them from coming in the first place — restoring the combination of Trump policies that had worked at the end of his administration, reforming the asylum laws, enhancing enforcement in the interior and building a border wall.
Greater border security would make it harder for drug cartels to smuggle drugs between ports of entry. Then, we could also increase monitoring at the ports of entry. This would have its own economic costs by causing cross-border delays. None of this would be a magic bullet, but it would all be worth trying before sending SEAL Team Six to nab the top leadership of the Sinaloa cartel.
That said, if the cartels expand their grip on Mexican territory that has fallen out of the control of the legitimate authorities, there may come a time when the U.S. government feels as though it has no choice but to act — but this is an exhaust-all-other-options alternative.
Short of that, U.S. saber-rattling could be a useful tool in dealing with AMLO or his successor (he can’t run again and there’s an election in 2024). It wasn’t always very subtle, but President Trump managed to threaten and cajole the Mexicans to the table for what turned out to be very productive cooperation on immigration enforcement in 2018 and got the Northern Triangle countries to do the same. Carrying a big stick isn’t the answer to everything, but it can be useful.
Overall, we should be realistic. As long as there is a huge maw of black-market demand for drugs in the United States, criminal organizations are going to find a way to feed it. That’s been our experience for decades now. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t curb the worst, most dangerous elements, or that we should look the other way when one of the advantages of our geo-political position — of having friendly, tolerably well-governed states to our north and south — begins to come into doubt.
Hitting targets in Mexico can’t and won’t be a Day One task of a Republican president, but the deteriorating state of Mexico is going to require clear-eyed and creative thinking.