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The Reality of Fighting a War Against Mexican Cartels
Calls for military action against Mexican cartels have grown in the past couple of months as the opioid epidemic continues with no sign of slowing down, however, is such an action even feasible?
The opioid epidemic has claimed the lives of 107,000 Americans in 2021 alone and the number continues to rise. Within Mexico, thousands of people are killed each year due to cartel violence. This could be through abductions, assassinations, revenge killings, and collateral deaths of the civilian populace. Bribery and corruption of Mexican officials, police, and politicians ensure the cartels maintain incredible influence and power. The cartels upgraded from heroin which has wreaked havoc on American towns and cities to a more potent synthetic drug, fentanyl. This chemical is the culprit behind this staggering and rapid increase in addiction and overdoses in the country. Add to this fact that since 2020 there have been multiple reported murders of American citizens at the hands of the cartels, with the most recent being 2 Americans gunned down in March of 2023. These incidents have caused some American politicians to call for military action against the Mexican cartels.
In a 60 Minutes interview, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper claimed that former President Donald Trump wanted to launch missile strikes in Mexico targeting cartel locations. A published Rolling Stones article from March cites an anonymous source claiming that the Former President wanted “battle plans” drawn for an attack on Mexico with or without the Mexican government's approval. It is important to note that the former president has neither confirmed nor denied these claims. However, other prominent figures in American politics have called for military action; Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, and Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy have all called for some form of military action against cartels in Mexico. To add context none of the political figures listed called for military support without Mexican government approval and support.
HOW THE CARTEL OPERATE
The cartels are not one organization and are not only operating in Mexico as some cartel organizations or gangs originate in other parts of Latin America. While there are cartels that are larger and more powerful, they are incredibly flexible and adaptive as an organization. This leads to the challenge of combating them with unconventional and conventional military force. In 2006, former Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a military crackdown against the cartels. The largest cartel was Las Zetas, and they became the primary target of the crackdown. The Mexican military made great success killing and capturing key leaders as well as destroying cartel drug operations. However, the remnants of the Las Zetas simply split into smaller gangs and continued their operations, but on a smaller level. This had the unintended consequences of increasing violence as cartels fought each other to fill the power vacuum.
I interviewed the creator of the 𝕏 account @All_Source_News, who primarily follows the current events in Mexico regarding the cartels and how the Mexican government is combating them. He described the situation as follows:
“Mexican military does regular deployments across Mexico, either as part of normal rotation of forces or to rapidly send members to hotspots to lower violence. Mexico depends on the Army, National Guard, and Marines to maintain security across Mexico. Generally, when violence reaches an unacceptable level, the Mexican government will deploy forces to help reestablish security although many times such deployments might actually worsen the situation on the ground. Cartel activity is still very common across Mexico but in many instances might not receive the media attention it deserves. Major cartel actors is a harder question to answer as it requires to really focus on the states. For example, although the two largest cartels are the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation, violence in Zacatecas involves a different set of actors than those in Michoacan or Sonora.
“The main revenue for cartels is likely still drugs followed by human trafficking, although human trafficking in many instances mostly involves independent criminal groups that are not necessarily tied to cartels. The problem is, cartels also rely on other sources of income and it also depends on which group we are talking about. For example, in Guanajuato, the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (an extremely violent group) depends heavily on extortion so to really answer that question, it is important to analyze each faction of a cartel to better grasp their source of revenue.”
Here, I ask how deep the corruption is and whether the current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been successful against the cartels:
“Corruption is very common at all levels (federal, state, and local) of the Mexican government. A recent interview done by @LuisKuryaki showed that certain factions of the Sinaloa Cartel debated supporting both major presidential candidates but it is important to ask this question: Do cartels bribe politicians in order to gain influence or do they bribe them because Mexican officials have the power to end their criminal activities? In many instances, bribes are made to senior government officials in the hope that those leaders will simply look the other way, even though Mexican government officials can quickly turn on them due to a variety of reasons. In relation to the US, most corruption we see is targeted at law enforcement officials, especially targeting the Border Patrol. Most corruption cases occur at the officer level indicating it hasn’t reached the upper echelons of local state or federal office holder.
“AMLO has completely changed his policy on how to fight cartels. From ‘abrazos, no balazos’ (hugs not bullets) to a very militarized approach. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked but the problem is the Mexican government simply has no other resources at their disposal to address the high level of violence.”
Lastly, I asked his opinion on the prospect of US military action against the cartels:
“Invading Mexico to target ‘cartels’ is not a serious policy position. Cartels are active across the world and all over Mexico. Furthermore, the term cartel is in itself heavily debated. We cannot view cartels as a singular organization and risk destroying our largest trading partner in the hope of fighting a group that is far more complex than Al-Qaeda or ISIS.
“My opinion is we can’t do anything without Mexico. If Mexico requests support, either military, intelligence, or law enforcement we should support it as long as they are in the lead. Furthermore, ample reporting does indicate that Mexico and the US have extensive counter-drug cooperation, even if the US wishes we had more. It would be suicidal to destroy such a relationship for nothing more than a campaign slogan.”
THE REALITY OF A WAR
Let us first look at a scenario in which the US decides to launch military strikes against the cartels without Mexican government approval. The diplomatic damage would be catastrophic and would have many extreme unforeseen consequences. One such consequence is trade. With Mexico being one of our most important trading partners, this type of activity would effectively end that relationship for years to come. Such an action could lead to a war against Mexico itself, as well as the cartels. Our relationship with other Latin American nations would also fall apart seeing such a brazen violation of Mexican sovereignty. Our wars in the Middle East often created enemies abroad, these gestures against Mexico would create enemies in our backyard.
In the event we were to receive Mexican approval and support, we will still face extreme challenges. For one, the cartel is in many places intermixed within the civilian population through both politics and business. This creates a complex environment where discerning civilians from cartel members is almost impossible. Making avoiding civilian casualties an even more daunting task. As already pointed out, cartel influence and control are significant. During the Danger Close Podcast with Jack Carr, Ed Calderon, a former counternarcotics officer discussed how he was offered $12,000 a week to train cartel members. He explained how prevalent corruption and bribery is for soldiers and police. Conducting multiple complex military or intelligence operations with Mexican officials would present a difficult situation where sensitive information is given to the cartel about any future operations.
It is understandable why some call for action against organizations as violent and evil as the cartels. However, for the best course of action, we must remember to study what worked and what didn’t, evaluate all possible options, and remain practical in our approach to this ever-evolving issue.
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