In 2022, drug overdoses claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans. The primary sources of illegal drugs flooding into the United States are the Mexican drug cartels, who exploit a network of corrupt politicians, police officers, and military personnel in Mexico. Within Mexico itself, these cartels are responsible for a staggering level of violence, including tens of thousands of homicides each year. Within the United States, the cartels establish distribution cells, collaborating with either Mexican gangs or affiliated criminal organizations.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considers the Mexican drug cartels to be the number-one threat to the United States. Among them, the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) are the richest and most powerful. Their exceptional earnings allow them to invest in soldiers and weapons, as well as payoffs and bribes, enabling them to expand their territorial control.
To effectively address the challenge posed by the cartels, the United States should adopt a comprehensive set of policy measures. These include securing the southern border, fostering enhanced cooperation with the Mexican government, implementing immigration reforms, bolstering drug enforcement efforts domestically, designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, imposing targeted financial and economic sanctions, and considering if limited military intervention is necessary.
While these measures hold significant potential, there exist political barriers that hinder their implementation.
Secure the Southern Border
Since January 2020, over five million people have illegally crossed the southern border. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) identifies protecting the border from illegal movements of people and drugs as being essential to homeland security. Transnational criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, are responsible for most of the drugs entering the country. On an average day, CBP seizes 1,797 pounds of illegal narcotics. In 2022, CBP seized a total of “more than 1.8 million pounds of narcotics and 14,700 pounds of fentanyl.” Preventing the cartels from being able to transport drugs into the United States would take away their income, causing their soldiers and friendly politicians to stop cooperating with them.
In order to better secure the border, CBP has created a preparedness plan which consists of a number of crucial elements, such as increasing the number of personnel, while improving technology and infrastructure. In addition to new hires, the number of personnel can be augmented through increased cooperation with other branches of law enforcement and the military. In May, President Biden, in response to a request from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees CBP, ordered an additional 1,500 troops to the border for a 90-day deployment. This was on top of the 2,500 already in place. Texas Governor Ron Abbot deployed his national guard and the new Texas Tactical Border Force to the border. North Dakota and Tennessee, as well as other states, also sent members of their national guard to Texas. In addition to national guard troops, the state of Florida sent a mix of state law-enforcement officers from varying branches. To effectively control the border, however, and have a major impact on illegal immigration, the number of troops will have to be drastically increased and the deployment would have to be permanent.
The technological improvements called for by the DHS include increased use of high-tech assets for aerial surveillance such as drones and manned aircraft. They also want sensors on border barriers, land sensors, cameras, radar, and autonomous surveillance towers. This technology will allow the DHS to better detect, monitor, and track unauthorized border crossings. Additionally, improved data analytics and artificial intelligence would help with screening and processing of legal entrants as well as illegals who have been apprehended.
The DHS has called for improved infrastructure towers, as well as facility expansion and upgrades. Some U.S. lawmakers would also like to see the border wall completed, particularly along vulnerable areas. A wall would impede illegal entry to the country, while making it easier for officials to spot illegal crossings.
Plans to secure the border have been rejected on a number of grounds. First, it would be expensive to station the necessary number of personnel at the border. Increased infrastructure, particularly the wall, would also be very costly and would not provide a 100-percent solution. Even more, it would be seen as racist, with Bloomberg calling the border wall a monument to White Supremacy.
Increased Cooperation with Mexican Government
One part of the cooperation with Mexico has to include Mexico’s willingness to help staunch the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Mexican President López Obrador formed a national guard tasked with this purpose, but the group has been condemned by human rights activists. Furthermore, the national guard, like other elements of Mexico’s law enforcement and military, suffers from corruption.
If migrants were turned away by the U.S. in large numbers, Mexico would have to stand ready to accept them. Mexico would also have to form agreements with other countries in the chain of drug transit, from Colombia, through Central America, to the U.S. border. These countries will have to similarly agree to help prevent migrants from entering Mexico and they will have to stand ready to receive those migrants returned by Mexico.
Inside of Mexico, the Mexican government must actively fight the cartels, disarming them, disbanding them, and loosening their hold over both territory and people. This includes targeting high-profile cartel leaders. This will create command and control vacuums which historically have caused in-fighting among cartel members. Large cartels would then splinter into independent and warring groups with considerably less power. Changes within Mexico, however, would be dependent on reducing corruption, and these policies would be very unpopular among politicians, police, and military officers who benefit from the status quo.
Because of the massive corruption and the influence the cartels have over the Mexican authorities, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has abandoned any hope of cooperating with the Mexican government, calling the country “a failed narco-state.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has similarly given up on the Mexican government, saying that the U.S. should notify Mexico that the cartels will soon be designated as terrorist organizations.
The screening process for legal immigrants must be strengthened, while backdoor avenues, such as illegal entry and asylum-seeking, must be curtailed. Under the Biden administration, anyone arriving at the southern border can claim to be seeking asylum. This allows them to remain in the United States awaiting their asylum hearing. Republicans see this as an enticement for people wishing to enter the country, bypassing normal immigration procedures. Rights groups, on the other hand, complain that Washington should not curtail its acceptance of asylum seekers. In this case, asylum seekers should be returned to Mexico to await their court date. Knowing that they cannot get a free pass into the U.S. would reduce the number of people seeking to exploit the system. This change in immigration procedure would have to be coordinated with Mexico, however, as the undocumented would be entering Mexican territory.
Increased Drug Enforcement in the U.S.
Drug laws in the U.S. must be rigorously enforced in order to reduce the demand for drugs. Law enforcement must be strengthened, including additional training, and increased investigation and prosecution of drug-related crimes. Intelligence gathering must be enhanced through the creation of specialized units and task forces. The DEA reported that drug cartels are exploiting social media to sell fentanyl and methamphetamine. The authorities should closely monitor these social media in order to identify and arrest buyers and sellers. Furthermore, the DEA must coordinate with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to increase arrests of people selling or buying illegal drugs.
Beyond law enforcement and prosecution, there must be comprehensive drug prevention and treatment programs, education campaigns, addiction treatment, and rehabilitation programs. Opponents of strict enforcement claim that enforcement does not work because drug use has increased during the 50 years that the U.S. war on drugs has been going on. The war on drugs has cost $1 trillion, and roughly one in five incarcerated people were arrested on drug charges. Opponents also complain that prisoners are disproportionately Black and Latino. Although only 13.4 percent of the population is African American, about 25 percent of all persons arrested for drugs are African American adults.
Identify Cartels as International Terrorist Organization
The cartels are known to cooperate with international terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, Taliban, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and al-Qaeda, in order to sell their drugs in other parts of the world. They also aid terrorism by smuggling terrorists into the United States. To launder their illicit income, they employ the services of Chinese criminal organizations which pose their own threat to the United States. U.S. lawmakers have proposed designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, because they use violence and threats of violence to influence and control judges, politicians, and lawmakers. Designating the cartels as terrorist organizations would facilitate U.S. government seizure of cartel assets. It would make it easier for the U.S. to arrest cartel members inside of the United States, and possibly inside of Mexico. The U.S. could deport or bar from entry persons associated with the cartels. A terrorism designation would also enable the U.S. to deploy the military, even inside of Mexico.
However, there would be a number of disadvantages. First, violence would most likely increase, particularly if the U.S. military became involved. Next, it would effectively destroy U.S.-Mexico relations. The U.S. would be able to sanction or arrest high-ranking members of the Mexican government and security forces, which might be perceived as an act of war. These types of purges might destabilize the Mexican government and would, at the very least, cause a breakdown in cooperation between the two nations. Furthermore, bilateral trade, valued at $800 billion and accounting for millions of jobs on both sides of the border, would dry up. Increased violence, a destabilized government, and a loss of jobs would increase the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw and other U.S. lawmakers have called for an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to target Mexican drug cartels, saying “We must start treating them like ISIS – because that is who they are.” Those who back an AUMF point to the fact that the cartels are responsible for more American deaths each year than the entire Vietnam War. An AUMF would provide the president with the sophisticated hardware and expert personnel of the U.S. military, more powerful assets than those possessed by law enforcement or the DHS. Supporters of an AUMF also make the point that the soldiers would be engaging foreign hostiles in a foreign nation and, therefore, would not be infringing on the civil rights of U.S. citizens.
In addition to arresting or killing key cartel members, military intervention could disrupt drug supply chains by destroying growing fields and drug labs. The government of Mexico has protested discussions of U.S. military operations in his country, calling it an offense to the Mexican people. Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador said that he would not “permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene”.
Another disadvantage of U.S. military operations in Mexico would be an increase in violence. Inevitably, civilians would suffer, and the U.S. would be portrayed as the villain in the international and liberal press. The threat of cartel violence against Americans would also increase. Historically, the cartels have tried to avoid killing Americans, for fear of provoking Washington’s wrath. If the U.S. military began engaging in cross-border operations, the cartels would most likely declare all-out-war on Americans. Cartel violence within the U.S. would also accelerate as the cartels would be risking nothing by upping the ante.
Increased Financial and Economic Sanctions
Financial and economic sanctions can be powerful tools to break the cartels and to punish those who assist them. This includes enforcement of anti-money laundering laws, as well as targeting financial institutions that handle cartel money. Cartel assets held in banks around the world could be seized if U.S. allies also participated in the sanctions. If Mexico is legitimately interested in curbing corruption in their own government, this intense scrutiny would also help them to discover which public officials were accepting bribes.
Sanctions have already been used against the cartels: In 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department, in cooperation with their Mexican counterparts, brought sanctions against a cartel member who was trafficking weapons from the United States. Under the sanctions, Obed Christian Sepulveda Portillo had his property in the U.S. seized. U.S. Entities and persons from the U.S. are also prohibited from doing business with him or completing transactions on his behalf. Those who violate these sanctions may face criminal charges or civil lawsuits. In July 2023, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against ten individuals, including several Sinaloa Cartel members, as well as one Mexico-based company, for their role in the production of illicit fentanyl and the precursor chemicals necessary for fentanyl production. Under the sanctions, all of their properties and interests in the U.S. were seized. Americans were banned from doing business with them. Companies in which they had a direct or indirect stake of 50 percent or more were also prohibited from doing business in the U.S. or with Americans. These are good examples, but to break the cartels, these types of sanctions would have to increase in scope, hitting large numbers of people participating in criminal networks.
From an efficacy standpoint, the above policy recommendations, if taken together, would result in a decrease in the supply side, a decrease in the demand side, and a long-term reduction in drug deaths and violent deaths in both the U.S. and Mexico, eventually leading to the stabilization of Mexico. Breaking the hold the cartels have on the country would allow Mexico to develop economically. This would benefit the entire population and the United States. But this success, which could take painful years to achieve, would come with a political and human cost which politicians may not be willing to pay.