What can the U.S. do to thwart Mexican drug cartels?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

An apparent case of mistaken identity led to the deaths of two Americans and a local bystander in a Mexican border town earlier this month, reigniting an intense debate over what the United States can do to stem drug cartel violence that’s plagued its southern neighbor and also caused immense suffering north of the border.

The Gulf cartel, which effectively controls the border city of Matamoros, where the attack took place, appears to have taken the rare step of apologizing and turned over to local authorities five of its members it claims are responsible.

The deaths of Americans drew excess attention to this recent incident in the U.S., but the reality is that cartel-related violence has been a constant threat to local citizens across several regions of Mexico for years. The country has seen an estimated 360,000 homicides since 2006, when the Mexican government declared a war on drugs. As of 2018, drug cartels controlled as much as 20 percent of Mexican territory, according to a report citing a classified government analysis. The U.S. State Department currently has a Do Not Travel advisory, the strongest possible warning it issues, placed on six states in Mexico due to the threat of kidnappings and killings.

While Americans are occasionally the victims of cartel violence in Mexico and on U.S. soil, the greatest harm cartels inflict in America is the result of the drug trade itself. Mexican cartels are believed to be the primary suppliers of fentanyl to America. The incredibly potent synthetic opioid that was responsible for two-thirds of the record 107,000 U.S. overdose deaths in 2021.

Why there’s debate

Several Republicans have responded to the recent killings by calling for the U.S. to use military force against Mexican drug cartels. While that is extremely unlikely, it’s consistent with a popular view among conservatives that America needs to be much more aggressive in directly combatting the cartels, rather than relying on Mexico’s government to lead the effort. A popular proposal on the right is for the U.S. to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations, a step that could theoretically give America more authority to counteract the group’s activities both in Mexico and at home.

Others say the Biden administration needs to be more forceful when dealing with Mexican leadership, including current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has championed a “hugs, not bullets” approach to cartels and recently claimed Mexico is not a source of fentanyl or a dangerous place to travel.

Critics of these ideas say that military intervention or an anti-terror approach are not only legally untenable, but would also create even more violence without meaningfully disrupting cartel activities. They argue that improving the relationships between U.S. and Mexican authorities, which are said to have unraveled in recent years, is the only way to build a coordinated response to the drug trade.

Many also say that the U.S. should focus on what it can control within its own borders, rather than trying to fix another country’s untenable problems. They argue that the best ways to weaken the cartels is to decrease American demand for the drugs that fund their operations, reduce the number of guns that make their way from the U.S. to Mexico and create an orderly immigration system that leaves less room for smuggling and human trafficking.


The U.S. can thwart the cartels by tackling problems at home that empower them

“The United States needs to resist the reflex to do things ‘over there’ to address threats to U.S. interests and focus instead on being a better neighbor. … Limiting the arms industry, by among other things restoring the assault weapons ban, is a critical starting point. So too is pouring greater resources into drug prevention and treatment to reduce the harm inflicted and profit extracted by fentanyl and other illicit drugs trafficked by drug cartels.” — Dan Restrepo, Dallas Morning News

Americans must stop acting as if the suffering of Mexican citizens doesn’t affect them

“This kidnapping is more than alarming. It’s a wake-up call to stop ignoring the horrific violence raging south of the border and dismissing it as Mexico’s problem. … It’s time to stop polarizing the border and the drug trafficking just to score political points and get serious about pooling resources to combat these problems. Our lives depend on it.” — Elvia Díaz, Arizona Republic

The two counties need to be allies, not adversaries, to curb the drug trade

“Mexico and the U.S. need to be partners. Reducing the violence will take cooperation in addressing root causes, and that includes who has access to weapons.” — Regina Lankenau, Houston Chronicle

The U.S. should stop treating Mexico’s leaders with kid gloves

“The Republican bluster about military action against the cartels is misguided, but it should also be clear that Mexico as a whole is not going to be a real ally to the U.S. in this crisis, as López Obrador has shown. Mexico is our largest trading partner and a regular recipient of U.S. aid. Perhaps those are the first things we should now be re-evaluating.” — Zachary Faria, Washington Examiner

A new approach is needed to respond to the emergence of fentanyl

“I have long been a critic of the War on Drugs, which has failed to stop the drug trade while creating a huge black market for ultraviolent cartels. … But the rise of synthetics and the sheer level of overdose deaths have rattled my thinking. … When cartels mainly moved cocaine and cannabis there was an argument, at least, that they were providing Americans with products they demanded. But with the perilous fentanyl, which some people take unwittingly, there is validity to the claim they are flooding poison over the border.” — Ioan Grillo, UnHerd

Targeted counterterror-style actions can derail cartel operations

“We don’t need another failed war on drugs that fills America’s criminal justice system with users and small-time dealers. What we need is a targeted, intelligent war on the Mexican drug cartels that are shipping weapons-grade poison into America’s communities, filling morgues with people in the primes of their lives.” — Bill Sternberg and Mary Bono, New York Daily News

The right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric does nothing to solve the problem

“There are no real winners here except for those politicians who have already used this tragedy as an opportunity to bang the drums of war. … These calls for a military operation are ludicrous, of course, but something tells me they’ll parlay these theatrics into a push for further militarization of our southern border. It is, after all, election season.” — Fidel Martinez, Los Angeles Times

Calls for military action are reckless and actively harmful

“Let’s be clear: It is not a good idea to send missiles or troops into Mexico to deal with the fentanyl problem. It is a violation of national sovereignty. It could spark a war with a neighbor and ally with a population of over 100 million. And past attempts to stamp out the drug trade using brute force [have not been] successful. (See: war on drugs, 20th century.)” — Zeeshan Aleem, MSNBC

Republicans’ chest thumping only makes it harder to convince Mexico to change its approach

“Mr. López Obrador’s security agenda is an easy target for his political opponents. But now threats from the American right are generating a sense of wounded national pride. Pressure on the president inside the country for bilateral cooperation has been undermined by what feels like gringo bullying — not to mention the lack of accountability for drug demand.” — Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal

The most powerful weapon against the cartels would be a stable Mexican government

“The Biden administration could be a more forceful advocate for Mexican democracy and rule of law — a debate it has only timidly entered, perhaps in fear of antagonizing López Obrador. The weakening of Mexico’s independent institutions benefits organized crime. The cartels’ sense of impunity, a sense that contributed to the brazen daylight attack in Matamoros, must end. It has eaten away at the right to basic safety for tens of millions of Mexicans.” — León Krauze, Washington Post

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)