War on Drugs

Bombing Mexican Cartels Won't Stop Fentanyl

A Republican-sponsored resolution would authorize the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against foreigners involved in fentanyl trafficking.


Americans continue to overdose on illicit fentanyl despite increased seizures of the drug coming north from Mexico. Several prominent Republicans are suggesting that the U.S. respond with wartime tools such as airstrikes and troop deployments. But combining the war on drugs with the war on terror is a surefire recipe for costly engagement abroad and little progress in reducing fentanyl-related harm at home.

During his presidency, The New York Times reported last year, Donald Trump expressed interest in using missiles to attack Mexican drug cartels and destroy their labs. Reps. Mike Waltz (R–Fla.) and Dan Crenshaw (R–Texas) helped revive that idea in January, when they introduced a joint resolution that would authorize the president to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against "foreign nations, foreign organizations, or foreign persons" involved in fentanyl production or trafficking.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) argues that the military should "go after these organizations wherever they exist." Several GOP presidential hopefuls, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, have echoed that sentiment.

There is little reason to believe these strikes would be as precise or effective as proponents claim. "Even a campaign of air strikes against cartels could easily escalate," says Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities. "Cartels could retaliate," he notes, and "strikes are bound to fail to affect fentanyl shipments, let alone meaningfully damage cartels."

Mexico hawks like Waltz say the U.S. has "done this before," citing Plan Colombia, a Clinton-era counternarcotics and counterterrorism initiative. But "claiming that Plan Colombia was a success is just plain false," says Javier Osorio, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona whose research focuses on criminal violence in Latin America.

When the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) "demobilized after the peace agreement in 2016," Osorio says, coca cultivation "skyrocketed." He notes that "it's even higher than before the U.S. started conducting aerial eradications" of coca fields. A similar counternarcotics program in Mexico, the Mérida Initiative, has been "a total disaster," Osorio says: It has not stopped drug trafficking, and years after the initiative began, Mexico's top law enforcement official was still "in bed" with the Sinaloa cartel.

The war on drugs has helped turn Latin America into the most violent region in the world, leading to increased black market activity and corruption. "If airstrikes miraculously kill off a cartel, another will fill the gap," Friedman says, "likely with considerable violence between criminals as the market shifts." According to Osorio, "There's always going to be someone willing to kill and die for supplying drugs when there's such a huge market."

Beyond direct military action, some Republicans say the U.S. should designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). It is unlawful for someone in the U.S. to knowingly provide "material support or resources" to an FTO, and financial institutions must freeze the assets of known FTOs and their agents.

The impact of an FTO designation goes beyond terrorist combatants. A migrant who pays ransom to a cartel, for example, could be barred from claiming asylum in the United States. The White House so far has rejected the FTO option, saying the Treasury Department already sanctions participants in Mexico's drug trade.

The immigration implications of U.S. military action in Mexico could be significant, given that the two countries currently have migrant intake agreements. David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, thinks "the Mexican government would refuse any collaboration with the United States on immigration" if "the U.S. government conducted military strikes on Mexican soil."

Diplomatic relations between the two countries are already suffering. Osorio warns that there is "increasing exasperation and increasing anti-American sentiment from the broader population" in response to the war rhetoric, especially given the history of U.S. military involvement in Latin America. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is strongly opposed to U.S. military action against cartels, calling it "irresponsible" and "an offense to the people of Mexico."

Waltz told Politico "the worst thing we can do is continue to do nothing." But drug prohibition is the root of the problem that Waltz is trying to solve: deaths caused by the unpredictable composition of black market opioids. Literalizing the war on drugs can only make that problem worse.