The US and Mexican borders have become a major discourse in American politics. Feeling that policies have not done enough to combat cartels, politicians have begun legislation to call for military action to combat drug cartels and mitigate illegal immigration from the southern borders.
Cartels and drug smugglers have had uncontested hegemony in their decades-long operations in Mexico — but the rise of the drug lords could not have happened without ongoing policies in the United States that direct military operations cannot solve.
The Cartels are Heavily Embedded in the Mexican Government
Major drug trafficking organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel have spent decades creating their own shadow governments and states within the state of Mexico. Using businesses as a front for their operations, the drug lords have bought out military officers, law enforcement officials, and politicians.
With a wide network to keep up operations even if their leaders are killed or captured, the cartels will continue to flourish with or without US military intervention as long as they hold a foothold over Mexico’s State apparatus.
US Weaponry Swells their Capabilities
Drug lords have a plethora of weaponry amongst their militia’s arsenals that have killed thousands of Mexican police and military. The majority weapons, ironically, happen to be American made.
Mexico’s government filed a lawsuit against US arms manufacturers for unlawful black market trafficking of their weapons to cartels. As the drug lords are the highest bidders and global arms sales are lucrative, it should come as no surprise of this illicit trade.
A February 2021 report by the ATF confirmed 70% of firearms recovered by police in Mexico were traced to US manufacturers. American arms have ended up in the hands of warlords, sanctioned by the state throughout East Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East the past few decades.
America is their Biggest Customers
The US consumes the most illicit drugs amongst any nation on Earth, and the War on Drugs has only exacerbated the crisis. With constant criminalization of drug users instead of rehabilitation, this has created a ‘broken windows’ cycle of imprisonment and drug use — which swell cartel profits.
The ‘decapitation strike’ method of targeting high value drug lords has only increased violence in Mexico and other Latin American nations. By leaving a power vacuum in operations, rival leaders are more prone to go to war to fight for control, swelling violence. Juan Castillo, a Mexican economist, argued to target cartels likely to back out of low-level violence peace deals, as it would mitigate them from going after the higher value operations that ultimately lead to greater violence.
The War on Drugs Fuels their Operations
Ever since the DC declared a “War on Drugs,” all efforts to stem the tide and flow of drugs have failed. Cartels in Mexico and other nations have thrived and to make it worse, the US government even made backdoor deals with them, such as the Iran-Contra Affair.
Today, illicit drugs such as fentanyl are produced primarily in America and not in Mexico, as the President of Mexico emphasized. As the overwhelming casualties in this perpetual drug war have been Mexican nationals, the relations between both neighboring countries will continue to deteriorate if the conflict is heightened.
Playing into the Hands of Rivals at the Worst Possible Time
Amongst heightened tensions in the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Middle East between South Korea and the DPRK, China and Taiwan, Ukraine and Russia, and Israel and Iran, an ever more stretched thin US military could spell consequences for allies in the most important regions.
A direct intervention in Mexico could also play into the hands of Beijing and Moscow. For the past year, the world has watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that changed the course of geopolitics akin to the invasion of Iraq. Not only would Russian media amplify an American invasion of their neighbor to justify their inhuman actions in Ukraine, but it also gives them the chance to black market Russian weapons to target US forces in a tit for tat conflict.
Overall, the risks of intervening or invading Mexico could outweigh the benefits — and this wouldn’t even include a renewed refugee crisis that the United States can’t handle. To truly combat the cartels, Washington must acknowledge how and why the drug lords rose to prominence and solve the root causes of the War on Drugs or face an everlasting cycle of violence.
[Photo by Diego Fernández / AP Mexico Photography Agency, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”