October 3, 2023
The Republican Party’s stance on using military force to combat drug cartels in Mexico may have started as a mere idea in the Trump White House, but it has now evolved into a significant aspect of the GOP’s policy agenda. Former President Donald Trump’s initial contemplation of launching missiles into Mexican drug labs has gained traction within the party, with many Republicans openly advocating for military intervention in Mexico, raising concerns among Mexican leaders.
Trump’s private discussions about using missiles in Mexico reportedly began in early 2020. However, it was not until former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper disclosed this information in his memoir that the public learned about the idea. Esper, in his book, portrayed Trump’s proposal as absurd. Surprisingly, instead of rejecting the notion, some Republicans embraced the idea of using military force against drug cartels on Mexican soil without the Mexican government’s consent.
Republican presidential candidates, both on the campaign trail and during the recent GOP debate in California, have been vocal about their support for sending U.S. Special Operations troops into Mexico. Their plans involve capturing or eliminating cartel members, destroying drug labs, and disrupting distribution networks. In addition to this, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have drafted a comprehensive authorization for the use of military force against drug cartels, akin to the authorizations granted to former President George W. Bush for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have also advocated for labeling Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, a proposal Trump flirted with during his presidency but withdrew due to Mexico’s strong objection. If Trump returns to the White House in 2025, he has vowed to push for these designations and deploy Special Operations troops and naval forces to confront the cartels.
Despite the GOP’s recent shift toward anti-interventionism during the Trump era, the party’s attraction to a military solution for drug cartels highlights its readiness to use armed force to address complex problems. Trump himself has oscillated between advocating for a reduced U.S. military presence abroad and making bellicose threats, such as the possibility of using force against Iran.
These plans have triggered strong opposition from Mexican officials, including “President Andrés Manuel López Obrador,” who has criticized the proposals as outrageous and unacceptable. The notion of sending military forces into Mexico without the country’s consent is historically unprecedented, with over a century having passed since the United States last sent military personnel into Mexico without approval.
Furthermore, concerns have been raised about the potential economic repercussions of military action in Mexico. Such actions could strain the U.S.-Mexico relationship, impacting trade and cooperation on issues like criminal extradition and efforts to curb illegal immigration. Some Republicans view the threat of military intervention as a means to pressure Mexico into adopting more aggressive measures against the cartels.
Under international law, a nation generally requires the consent of another to use military force on its territory, unless authorized by the United Nations Security Council or in cases of self-defense. However, the U.S. has argued that it can use force unilaterally on another country’s soil if that nation is unable or unwilling to combat a nonstate threat originating from within, such as a threat from a terrorist group.
Republicans have framed Mexican drug-trafficking networks as a national security threat, with some even describing fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction. The significant demand for illegal drugs in the United States has long been a source of revenue for criminal smuggling operations along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the surge of fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid linked to a majority of American overdose deaths, has escalated the crisis, prompting bipartisan efforts to find solutions.
Frustration with the Mexican government’s approach to drug crime has also fueled Republican support for military intervention. Mexico’s president has advocated a “hugs not bullets” strategy in response to drug crime, a departure from previous administrations’ crackdowns on cartel leaders that often resulted in widespread violence. The cartels, operating like high-tech paramilitary organizations, have gained control over significant regions in Mexico and have corrupted numerous officials within the country’s government and law enforcement agencies.
In contrast to the Biden administration’s stance, which seeks cooperation with Mexico to combat drug trafficking, many Republicans remain steadfast in their call for military action. The GOP’s push for a military solution to the drug problem has ignited a heated debate, not only in the United States but also in Mexico, where leaders are faced with navigating the complex diplomatic fallout.
As Mexico approaches a pivotal presidential election next year, the handling of these tensions and the Republican Party’s stance on military intervention will likely be a key issue for both countries to address.