The Coming War with Mexico
It's election season—a time for big promises, unending political ads, and saber-rattling. The target of this year’s saber-rattling is Mexico. Many politicians, mostly Republicans at this stage, are arguing in favor of deploying US military forces against Mexican drug cartels. Ostensibly this is in response to the continued threat that these cartels pose to US citizens, especially in moving fentanyl across the border into the US. There has also been a spate of Americans who were the target of crime in Mexico, including murder. The situation in Mexico can be described as grim, but is going to war the solution? And believe me, despite the claims of politicians, that is what we would be doing.—we would be going to war with Mexico.
My views that follow are based on almost a decade of counternarcotics work in Latin America, including Mexico. They are based on my dealings with US policymakers and national security experts, on close work with different US military elements, and dealing with politicians in Congress and the White House.
With that said, the first point I’d like to make is that all this talk about using military force to strike at drug cartels in Mexico is a lot of bullshit. It is election-year posturing designed to show the voters that various candidates running for office are tough. It is about throwing red meat to the masses: getting citizens angry, and afraid, and turning whichever politician is proposing military action into the savior and defender of the American people. Take a look at Ron DeSantis. He claims he will launch military action against Mexico on day one of his presidency. What does that mean? Does he believe that on day one of his presidency US military forces will strike into Mexico? He knows better. To conduct successful operations, the US military needs to plan, gather intelligence on targets, and preposition people and equipment. This will take time. Does he instead mean the military will prepare plans for action in Mexico on day one? Even this interpretation strikes me as an empty promise. Numerous presidential candidates claim they will do something on day one of their term and never really do what they promised throughout their entire presidency. War with Mexico isn’t feasible. Let’s get into why.
These same politicians calling for military action claim that sending forces into Mexico would not be an invasion and the Mexicans would not see it as such. This is gross wishful thinking. Would we stand idly by while Chinese special forces killed Taiwanese politicians who dared travel to the US? Why do we believe the Mexicans would view it as anything other than a military invasion? Mexico has been invaded on numerous occasions, especially by the US. They remain very sensitive to the fact that the US, in the Mexican-American War, took a third of Mexico's territory and forced it, through defeat, into the status of a second or third-ranked nation. They would never tolerate US military action.
Having said that, the Mexican military is incapable of stopping the US. Should the situation escalate and Mexico resist militarily, the Mexican military would pose few difficulties for the US. They would be rapidly defeated, but then what? There are various asymmetric responses the Mexicans can take. Northern Mexico and the Southwestern US have extremely close commercial ties. Many factories in Texas and the Southwest US rely on legal Mexican day workers who come to the US to work in factories and go home to Mexico at the end of the day. Cross-border trade is huge. Numerous US companies have factories in Mexico and rely on them to import parts and goods. Not to mention many US industries have factories in Mexico that produce goods for the US market. If Mexico shuts the border in response to a military invasion, and Mexicans refuse to continue commercial relations, it will result in serious financial and commercial losses for both countries and the Southwest US will take a serious hit.
Hypothetically, let’s say that Mexico doesn’t respond to our hypothetical invasion, and we are able to get military forces into the country. The principal idea suggested by various politicians is to have the US military strike at drug labs, warehouses, and leaders in order to destroy the cartels. This shows a serious lack of understanding of the drug trade. We are not dealing with Pfizer. Some labs are large and relatively sophisticated, but most tend to be smaller, simpler, and easy to dismantle and rebuild at another location. If we destroy drug labs, cartels will simply build new labs, quickly and further south of the border, forcing US forces to strike deeper into Mexican territory. They will move labs into cities, forcing the US to attack heavily populated areas with accompanying collateral damage. How far into Mexico are we willing to strike in this "surgical" operation?
And what if cartels decide to strike back? Using their distribution network and criminal associations in the US, they could conceivably launch attacks against the American civilian population. The irony would be that one of the justifications for the strikes, protecting US lives, would result in more loss of US lives. Now we find ourselves deeper and deeper into Mexico with increased violence in the US. One can see this conflict escalating to include a naval and air blockade to stop the halt of drugs. This situation has all the hallmarks of past US military interventions. We assume, without real justification, a certain outcome, not really taking into account the other side's response, and find ourselves drawn deeper into an ever-escalating conflict. Holy Operation Iraqi Freedom, Batman!
Many cite Plan Colombia as a model, where the US and Colombia teamed together to attack the drug trade, but Colombia and Mexico are two different situations. Colombia faced a drug-fueled insurgency bent on toppling the government and replacing it with a Marxist regime. The government, the military, and the elite were engaged in a war for survival. There was a reason why Plan Colombia took off after the guerrillas, the FARC, became heavily involved in the drug trade and not before. It was in the best interest of the Colombian government to cooperate with the US. Mexico faces no such threat. Mexican cartels are not trying to overthrow the government or replace the elites and the military. They want the authorities to leave the drug trade alone. Mexican authorities do not face extinction, though the growing violence threatens day-to-day security. The message from Mexican drug cartels is, "You leave us alone and we leave you alone." The message in Colombia was, "We are coming for you."
In the end, Plan Colombia was a major success in the fight against the FARC. The organization was defeated, brought to the negotiating table, and the war ended. Plan Colombia, however, did not end the drug trade. Cocaine is still produced and still sent to the US, we just don't talk much about it.
Unlike a Marxist revolution, Mexicans in many cases are benefiting financially from the drug trade. Plus Colombia never faced the level of US intervention that Mexico has, making Mexicans very sensitive to anything that smacks of US meddling in Mexican affairs. We should not make the mistake of treating both nations the same or assuming there will be similar outcomes.
The calls for military action against Mexico aren’t born from sound intelligence and policy, they are a response born from frustration. I understand that frustration, having worked counternarcotics. They were the most frustrating years of my career. No matter the policy, no matter the actions the US took, no matter the successes against various cartels and traffickers, we never made a serious dent in the trade. There is too much money to be made, too many people willing to die for that money and lifestyle. Policies based on frustration seldom lead to positive outcomes.
To exploit other frustrations, some have tried to tie the drug trade to illegal immigration but those are two separate issues. Cartels do bulk business, moving large quantities of narcotics into the US. They can't accomplish this using migrants crossing illegally into the US. The amount of narcotics would be too small and the likelihood of losing their product through a variety of means too high. The majority of drugs that come into the US do so through legitimate border crossing points or other means such as aircraft, tunnels, ships, and even submarines. We could close the entire border to illegal immigration tomorrow and it would have minimal impact on drug trafficking. To tie migrants would merely distract us from solving the problem.
What all these calls for military action have in common is their avoidance of the causes of the problems in Mexico. People in the US consume the drugs, they create the demand and provide the money that fuels cartels. We sell the cartels the majority of weapons they use in their ongoing wars against each other and the Mexican government. US banks help launder the profits cartels make, turning a blind eye when traffickers use gaps in US money laundering laws to move their funds. The politicians don't mention these issues because it requires us to accept responsibility for our actions, it requires us to acknowledge that there are two sides to the problem and we are one very large part of said problem.
As long as we fail to deal with these issues, we will continue to have the same problems with drug cartels. Solving these issues is a difficult endeavor. We can halt or reduce the sale of weapons to Mexico but people on this side of the border are making money conducting these sales, just as banks reap the reward of laundering money. Getting people to stop using drugs is extremely hard and complicated, much more so than just saying no to drugs. Developing programs to rehabilitate drug users is just not as vote-getting as bombing another country.
So, what will actually happen? Hopefully nothing. I still believe the calls for military action against Mexico are political posturing. Should it become more than that, we will face another pointless war with serious unintended consequences. We will have asymmetric warfare not only at our door but within the US itself. There will be serious economic repercussions on the US economy and there will be the inevitable mission creep as our frustration builds when we do not get the outcomes we want. A war with Mexico will not solve the drug problem. Dealing with the root causes will help alleviate the drug problem.