Latin American illicit drug business

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Bomb Mexico?

In both countries public debate over fentanyl is deeply influenced by electoral politics. Mexico is preparing for presidential and general elections in June 2024. The US is in the early stage of the primaries campaign, ahead of the general election due in November 2024. Politicians in both countries are therefore looking to develop vote-winning narratives around issues of crime, drug trafficking, and migration. Conventional wisdom suggests Mexican politicians do well appealing to nationalist and anti-US sentiment, although this may be changing. Likewise, US politicians have gained from articulating anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly over drugs, immigration, and the alleged loss of US blue collar jobs resulting from trade with Mexico. In the current developing primaries campaign, important sections of the US Republican party seem to believe once more that there are votes to be won by taking a hard-line anti-Mexico stance.

This year various Republican contenders have outlined a whole range of extreme proposals for dealing with the fentanyl crisis. In July a group of Republican think-tanks published an open letter warning that US-Mexico collaboration on drugs and security issues had “collapsed”. It said the AMLO government was working in a “conscious and willing symbiosis” with the cartels and accused the Mexican president of having “expressed his openness to a pact with the cartels”.  

Earlier, in April, advisers to former president Donald Trump, widely expected to win the Republican nomination (despite multiple legal cases against him), said he had discussed “sending special forces” and “using cyber warfare” to target cartel leaders. A report by Rolling Stone magazine said Trump’s advisers had briefed the former president on “battle plans” with a range of options including unilateral military strikes and troop deployments conducted without Mexican government approval.

One far-right think tank, the Center for Renewing America, has outlined possible justifications and procedures for a Trump presidency to “formally” declare “war against the cartels”. Two Republican members of congress have drawn up a bill seeking authorisation for the use of military force to “put us at war with the cartels”. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, says he is open to sending US troops into Mexico even if Mexican permission is withheld. Mike Waltz, a Lower Houser member from Florida and former Green Beret, says: “We need to start thinking about these groups more like we do ISIS and less like we do the mafia.” In both houses of congress there have been proposals to designate the cartels as foreign terrorist organisations (FTOs).

Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination appear to be competing among themselves to see who can come up with the most draconian and headline-grabbing ideas. In a campaign video, Trump said that if re-elected he would “order the Department of Defense to make appropriate use of special forces, cyber warfare, and other overt and covert actions to inflict maximum damage on cartel leadership, infrastructure and operations”. Vivek Ramaswamy, another contender for the Republican nomination, said that using military force without Mexican permission “would not be the preferred option, but we would absolutely be willing to do it”.

If they were adopted as official policy, such hard-line postures would have massively uncertain outcomes, but at the moment they are primarily seen as an instrument to rally US conservative sentiment. Moderate Republicans have nevertheless warned of the enormity of the risks involved. Some analysts point out that conducting military operations on the territory of a foreign country, without its approval, in effect constitutes an act of war. One Republican congressional aide told the Politico website: “If you thought Iraq was a bad situation, wait until you invade a country on our border…our grandchildren will be dealing with this.”

This source said that according to US military assessments 30% to 35% of Mexican territory is currently “ungoverned” meaning that any invasion would likely trigger a surge of people with legitimate claims to seek asylum in the US, highly counterproductive for any political party that wants to reduce inward immigration. Others point out that these ideas only address the supply side of the fentanyl problem, not the public-health problem of excess US demand.

Some US politicians may seek to conflate the surge in undocumented migrant inflows with the trafficking of fentanyl across the border. However, the evidence does not point in that direction. Around 90% of fentanyl seizures take place at legal points of entry. Mexican cartels largely hire US citizens, not migrants, to smuggle the drug into the country. US citizens represent over 85% of those convicted on fentanyl charges. One of the more typical forms of fentanyl smuggling is to hide the drug in concealed vehicle compartments driven by US citizens with US number plates.

Fentanyl drug traffickers are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens, not illegal immigrants
Citizenship status of defendants convicted of fentanyl drug trafficking, 2018-2021

Source: Cato Institute

The suggestion by some members of the US congress from both major parties for Mexico’s two major criminal organisations, the Sinaloa cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), to be designated as foreign terrorist organisations (FTOs) is particularly notable because US legislation authorises military strikes against FTOs. However, opponents of the idea say the cartels’ current designation as Transnational Criminal Organisations (TCOs) already gives the Washington administration significant powers, including the ability to apply economic and financial sanctions. Seeking to raise that to FTO status would deeply alienate the AMLO government for no significant corresponding gain in law enforcement.

That said, the issue is likely to remain on the US political agenda as it gives Republicans a rallying call to mobilise their supporters. In early 2023 two Republicans, Dan Crenshaw (Texas) and Mike Waltz (Florida), introduced a bill titled “[Authorisation for the Use of Military Force] Cartel Influence Resolution” which would allow the US president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against foreign nations, organisations or persons that the president “may determine have committed drug-related offences”. Meanwhile, 18 state attorneys wrote to President Biden requesting that he designate fentanyl as a “weapon of mass destruction”. Florida governor and presidential contender Ron de Santis said he favoured “direct action” including a possible blockade of Mexican ports. Brian Finucane of the International Crisis Group (ICG) lobbying organisation has warned that what he calls “war talk” will “only serve to strain US-Mexico ties, potentially complicating the two neighbours economic relations and their capacity to work together in promoting safe, orderly migration and fighting transnational crime”.

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