A fringe idea to directly take on the Mexican cartels with the U.S. military is gaining some traction in the Republican party — even as critics warn that any unilateral action would endanger relations with Mexico and fail to alleviate the flow of drugs across the border.
Several leading Republican presidential candidates, including former President Trump, have backed unilateral military action in Mexico. At the same time, conservative lawmakers have introduced legislation to either authorize U.S. military action against the cartels or designate them as terrorist groups, a label that could pave the way for military force.
“I will impose a full naval embargo on the drug cartels and deploy military assets to inflict maximum damage on cartel operations,” Trump said in a 4-minute video this month filmed on the border.
Yet direct military action still has scant support among centrist Republicans in Congress, who argue there are more effective ways to address the cartels and stop the illegal trafficking of fentanyl and other illicit drugs that are killing Americans.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said military action “sounds great” in principle but would likely backfire.
“What you end up doing is you’re essentially declaring war against Mexico and it would have widespread ramifications,” McCaul told The Hill. “There are ways to deal with the cartels, including other operations not quite so public.”
The debate has already strained an already fractious relationship with Mexico, America’s No. 1 trading partner.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador blasted the proposals for military action in his country earlier this year, saying his country was a “free, independent, sovereign state” that would not allow foreign government interference.
Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, said some of the talks might be political rhetoric — but admitted she had a “real concern” about the discussions around military force in Mexico.
“The way it’s being discussed normalizes what should be a very abnormal proposal,” Brewer said. “There are already consequences in the bilateral relationship just from the proposals that are out there.”
Launching military operations against the cartels, who have operated in Mexico for decades, is not a new idea and related legislation has been introduced in the past.
But it appears to be attracting more GOP support along with rising concerns over fentanyl, which kills 150 Americans everyday. While the ingredients for the synthetic opioid are produced in China, much of the production occurs in Mexico. Both countries have largely dismissed U.S. criticism over their roles in the epidemic in America.
The cartels are also involved with smuggling migrants over the border, a leading concern for Republicans in the 2024 White House race. And many Republicans have sought to link the two issues, though research has shown migrants play a marginal role in the fentanyl trade.
Trump has floated the idea of military action against cartel operations before and as president privately discussed with aides several options to combat the criminal organizations, including military strikes, according to Rolling Stone.
In his video from the border this month, Trump pledged to fight the cartels and argued the country has turned into “hell” due to President Biden’s handling of the border.
He is not alone in that view in the crowded GOP presidential field.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said the cartels will “cease to exist” if he is elected president.
“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 said in a May speech.
FILE – Republican presidential candidate South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a campaign event with the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, Thursday, May 25, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
Republican presidential candidate South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a campaign event with the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, Thursday, May 25, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley proposed sending in special forces to combat the cartels in what she said would be a similar method to addressing ISIS in the Middle East.
“Either you do it or we do it,” Haley said at a town hall in March, addressing Mexico. “We are not going to let all of this lawlessness continue to happen.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the top candidate after Trump, has not explicitly endorsed military action but said last month “We really need to hold the Mexican drug cartels accountable” over migration concerns.
And Vivek Ramaswamy, a longshot for the GOP presidential nomination, said in May the U.S. “should use our military to annihilate the Mexican drug cartels and finally end the supply-driven fentanyl crisis.”
If a Republican takes the White House and the GOP also wins both chambers of Congress, there still appears to be limited GOP support for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which would be needed to conduct military operations without a formal declaration of war.
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks outside the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Tuesday, June 13, 2023, in Miami, before former President Donald Trump makes a federal court appearance on dozens of felony charges accusing him of illegally hoarding classified documents and thwarting the Justice Department’s efforts to get the records back. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Hill that “we need to do all we can to block the cartels” from endangering the U.S. but opposed military action.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Ala.), who sits on the Senate side of the committee, declined to speak on any specific proposal but suggested another path.
“The first way to combat the cartels in Mexico is to secure the border,” he said.
Still, there is congressional support to get tougher on Mexico’s government, which is largely seen in Washington as too corrupt and inadequate to combat the scourge of cartels. Mexico City launched an ongoing war on criminal organizations in 2006 with little results, even with billions of dollars of support from the U.S.
Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) introduced legislation in January to create an AUMF against the cartels. The lawmakers equated the organizations to terrorist groups like ISIS and argued it was “time we directly target them” and “go on offense.”