War on Drugs

The Republican Primary Consensus for Sending the Military Into Mexico

Presidential contender Tim Scott, who announced recently, says he will use "the world's greatest military to fight these terrorists" south of the border. He's not alone.


When Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.), a comparatively affable chap in the context of contemporary GOP politics, announced his 2024 presidential bid on Monday, the speech was predictably full of the upbeat, anecdotal, ain't-America-grand stuff that Scott, like generations of Republicans before him, has made central to his political career.

Then things suddenly turned dark.

"When I am president, the drug cartels using Chinese labs and Mexican factories to kill Americans will cease to exist," Scott vowed. "I will freeze their assets, I will build the wall, and I will allow the world's greatest military to fight these terrorists. Because that's exactly what they are."

Scott's bellicosity was no mere bolt from the blue. As Reason has been documenting for six years now, Republicans, even while otherwise souring on U.S interventionism abroad, have increasingly concluded that the alarming spike in domestic fentanyl overdoses would best be treated by sending the military into Mexico.

Donald Trump first floated the idea, while he was president, of designating drug cartels as terrorist organizations—thereby allowing for extraterritorial prosecutions, enhanced investigative powers, and increased penalties for domestic drug-related crimes—in March 2019, but held off after the government of Mexico repeatedly objected on grounds of sovereignty while making uncooperative noises about transnational migration policy.

But the appetite for corralling cartels into the otherwise-unpopular war on terror was only beginning to rumble in the conservative belly. Trump himself in the summer of 2020 twice asked then–Defense Secretary Mark Esper whether "we could just shoot some Patriot missiles and take out the labs, quietly," according to Esper's 2022 memoir. Notable MAGA politicians Sen. J.D. Vance (R–Ohio) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) have both suggested violent interdiction south of the border, as have a bevy of more traditional hawks. There are a handful of escalatory bills bouncing around Congress.

Open presidential primary contests, filled with hot air as they may be, are nonetheless useful X-rays of a political party's ideological heart. Trump's polling bounce in July 2015, after launching his campaign with a barrage of startling insults about Mexican immigrants, bent the entire competition—including politicians with long immigration-friendly track records—toward Constitution-bending restrictionism. Some proposals that sounded implausibly fringe back then—Trump's ban on Muslims of certain nationalities from entering the country, most notoriously—were translated in modified form into federal policy.

So, listed in order of their RealClearPolitics polling average for the past month, here are the top six 2024 GOP presidential candidates talking in their own words about using the U.S. military in Mexico to fight fentanyl-dealing drug cartels. Below that are some Reason arguments against merging the war on terror with the war on drugs.

1) Donald Trump (56.3 percent)

"When I am president, it will be the policy of the United States to take down the cartels, just as we took down ISIS and the ISIS caliphate," the former president said in January. "[I will] 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."

2) Ron DeSantis (19.4 percent)

"Would you build the wall and would you use the military to go after Mexican drug cartels?" Florida's governor was asked at a press conference this month, replying, "Yes, and yes." He elaborated:

The border should be shut down. I mean, this is ridiculous what's going on. You shut it down. You do need to construct a wall. …

We also have to come to terms with all the amount of fentanyl that's coming into our country because of this border. And who's doing it, it's these Mexican drug cartels. They need to be held accountable. We can't just let our people die. …

That's a Day One issue. I mean, you've got to be really, really determined. You can't let it slide, you can't make excuses, you gotta go in and you gotta really go in with all guns blazing and using all the leverage that you have to be able to do it.

3) Mike Pence (5.6 percent)

"The cartels are in operational control of our borders," the former vice president said at a campaign stop in March. "National security begins with border security. We need leadership that will secure the southern border of the United States of America as a priority. … You do not buy into the open-borders crowd. Not only do you have this humanitarian crisis coming across, [there's] the impact on our economy, families, and communities, the flow of illegal drugs. … We have to have leadership willing to use American strength."

4) Nikki Haley (4.3 percent)

"When it comes to the cartels," the former South Carolina governor said in March, "you tell the Mexican president, 'Either you do it or we do it.' But we are not going to let all of this lawlessness continue to happen. And we can do that by putting Special Ops in there, by doing cyber, by really being strategic—just like we dealt with ISIS, you do the same thing with the cartels."

5) Vivek Ramaswamy (3.6 percent)

"If the U.S. military has one job, it is to protect U.S. soil here in the United States, including the southern border," Ramaswamy said in a March interview. "And treating the cartels like terrorists doesn't just mean freezing their assets, which is what some believe. I think it means justified military force to decimate the cartels, Osama bin Laden–style, Soleimani-style. This is doable. And this is something that I actually expect to do as the next president of the United States in the first six months. And I think it's important to do it in…one cycle of aggressive shock and awe. And that solves the fentanyl supply-side problem."

6) Tim Scott (1.8 percent)

Asked by NBC News to clarify his use-the-military comments in his announcement speech, Scott said:

What we should do is whatever it takes to secure our southern border and stop the Mexican cartels from bringing fentanyl across the border …

We have the ability and the power to use sanctions to freeze the assets of the Mexican cartels today. There are 500 people that are involved in the three major cartels, net worth around $20 billion for a couple of them. Can we use the resources that are available today to stop fentanyl from coming across our border? Absolutely … Should we have more of a military presence on…our southern border? Obviously we should. …

Should we provide the resources necessary on our border to protect our citizens? Absolutely. Should we say exactly what we're gonna do? Of course not.

Some Reason counterarguments:

"No, the U.S. Shouldn't Wage War Against Mexican Cartels," by Fiona Harrigan

"Calls To 'Close the Border' in Response to Fentanyl Deaths Are Misguided," by Fiona Harrigan

"How Innovative Responses to Prohibition Set Off a Deadly Fentanyl Explosion," by Jacob Sullum

"Fentanyl Is Not a Nuke, and Drug Dealers Are Not Terrorists," by Katherine Mangu-Ward