Policymakers around the United States are searching for a solution to the country’s fentanyl crisis. More than 70,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2021, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, many of which involved fentanyl.
One idea gaining traction – particularly among conservatives – is to declare war on the Mexican cartels that are largely responsible for producing and trafficking the drug into the U.S.
“[The cartels are] poisoning street drugs with fentanyl and they’re doing it on purpose. So they’ve been at war with us for a while,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw said on Fox News in November. “So it’s time we go to war with them.”
Crenshaw, a Houston Republican, filed a bill on Feb. 1 called the Declaring War on the Cartels Act of 2023. Other Republicans, such as presidential candidate and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, also have suggested using the American military to fight the cartels in Mexico.
Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, spoke to Texas Standard about the ripple effects of American military intervention in Mexico. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This story has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: How serious is this talk of possible military intervention in Mexico against the cartels?
Tony Payan: Well, I think there is a lot of frustration, particularly among the Republicans, about what’s going on. Mr. López Obrador has denied that fentanyl is produced in Mexico. He has refused to confront the cartels. He has refused to acknowledge that there is a joint problem. We have to remember that he implemented something that he called “Abrazos, no balazos” or “Hugs and not Bullets” as a strategy towards the cartels – it’s not paid off. Violence continues in Mexico. Drug trafficking continues in Mexico. And then, of course, when the president heard about American intentions of forcing Mexico into some sort of joint action, the president simply dismissed the whole thing.
You mentioned López Obrador. You’re talking about Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he’s popularly known. He rejects this whole idea. You consider the fact that Mexico is our number one trading partner. You consider issues of immigration that have the great potential to complicate efforts to work with Mexico. AMLO has specifically rejected this whole idea, and without his participation, is it even conceivable that we could actually see U.S. forces taking an open or perhaps even a covert role south of the border?
It is quite possible that the United States government will have some covert operations, but not by the military, perhaps the CIA. There are drones, there are other means the U.S. can use to target specific laboratories within Mexico. And of course, it’ll create a lot of tension with Mexico if this is known. It’ll ruin the partnership, the relationship. But I think there is some passivity in the Biden administration, and that’s also very frustrating for Republicans. The Biden administration has tried to deny President López Obrador’s use of the nationalist card. He’s already, I think, instinctively an anti-American president, even though he’s not very open about it. And, of course, this frustration with his own denial that Mexico even participates in this, so we’re at a very delicate junction. And I would caution against passing that bill even if the United States acts covertly against these cartels.
Professor, is there a consensus, though, that something different has to be done to combat fentanyl trafficking, given the number of people who are dying from overdoses in 2021 alone – 71,000 people. That’s more than the 55,000 or so who died in all of the Vietnam conflict, and we’re just talking about overdoses here. And if there is that consensus, do you see this conversation playing a role in the upcoming election?
Absolutely. I think this is very political. It’s very symbolic. We’re going to hear more about that. And, of course, the immigration crisis, which continues. But I think the rhetoric coming from the Republicans on Capitol Hill is going to be very useful to get Mr. López Obrador to the table and see if he can change his strategy, his approach towards the cartels and, of course, the fentanyl crisis. I don’t think the bill will pass. And if it passes, I think President Biden will veto it. But I think it’ll contribute to try to get Mr. López to acknowledge that this is a binational problem, is an interesting problem, and that he needs to deal with it jointly with the United States, especially after they ended the Mérida Initiative of 2007, which lasted until about well into the Trump administration. So we now have a joint problem, and I think he needs to acknowledge that and this frustration reflects it.