As addiction researchers and health care providers search for a scalable response to heroin- and fentanyl-related deaths, a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security has proposed a simpler solution: Congress should declare war on Mexico.
"It sounds crazy, I know—unless you acknowledge we are already fighting a war with Mexico," Matt Mayer writes in U.S. News and World Report. "Short of such an all-out military effort, has anyone offered a realistic way to defeat the drug cartels and stop the flow of death drugs? Crushing the supply of opioids and other death drugs from Mexico will allow our treatment activities to gain ground against the epidemic and one day get ahead of it."
Mayer worked at DHS under President George W. Bush, and his proposal draws inspiration from that period of foreign policy:
Let me put this issue in perspective. Since the first al-Qaida terrorist attack in Yemen in 1992, fewer than 5,000 Americans have died in terrorist attacks, with many of the deaths occurring on Sept. 11, 2001. In response to terrorist attacks, we waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on external and internal security measures to detect and to prevent future attacks.
If we did all of that in response to radical Islamic terrorism, why is it so crazy to consider using our military power to defeat the Mexican drug cartels which have inflicted far more death, mayhem and costs on America than al-Qaida and the Islamic State group combined?
I cannot argue with Mayer's math, though he's calculating on a slippery slope. Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans, and we know what causes it: lack of exercise, poor dietary habits, and/or tobacco use. Should we raze the sugarcane fields of South Florida and the cornfields of Iowa? What about napalming Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, which produce the bulk of America's smoked tobacco? It sounds crazy, I know—unless you acknowledge we are already fighting a war with heart disease.
Mayer goes on to suggest how we might conduct this war without provoking retaliation from the Mexican government:
Ideally, as our fight is not with the Mexican government, its military or its people, which try to weaken the cartels, we would try to partner with those entities against the cartels, much as we partnered with the South Vietnamese government and military against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army.
I have read just enough about Vietnam to know it's not a model for success. I might also point out that 85 percent of the global heroin supply comes from Afghanistan, which we invaded 16 years ago.
Instead, I'd like to talk about the Mexican military, which is perhaps the most efficient killing force on the planet. Last year, The New York Times reported that military conflicts generally produce a injure-to-kill ratio of four to one. That is, for every four combatants injured, one combatant is killed. The Mexican military writ large has a injure-to-kill ratio of one to eight, meaning they injure one person for every eight they kill. The Mexican Marines kill 30 people for every one person they injure. In fact, the Mexican military kills so many people while injuring so few that most informed observers believe the country is violating international laws regarding human rights and warfare.
Considering how good Mexico's government is at killing its own people, Mayer's proposal has me wondering what the value-add of a U.S. invasion would be. Washington hasn't merely turned a blind eye to human rights abuses south of the border; it has poured money into Mexico's drug war for nearly two decades, along with military advisers and weapons. Declaring war would be the next step in an instruction manual written by a Neanderthal. It would be expensive, illiberal, diplomatically catastrophic, and toxic to the shared economies of Mexico and the U.S. It would also avoid confronting the fact that we're currently failing to implement internationally recognized best practices—such as decriminalization, safe usage facilities, clean needle exchanges, and medication-assisted therapy—that have been shown to reduce opioid- and heroin-related mortality.
In short, Mayer's idea sounds crazy because it is.