National Review

The War on Terror Playbook for Decimating Mexican Drug Cartels

Distinguished Fellow
Soldiers stand guard next to an Army vehicle that was destroyed during an operation to arrest Ovidio Guzman in Culiacan Sinaloa State, Mexico, on January 7, 2023. (Juan Carolos Cruz/AFP via Getty Images)

Former attorney general Bill Barr believes the United States should use the lessons it learned from the War on Terror in the fight against Mexican drug cartels.

“There were 80,000 ISIS [militants] controlling a large territory in the Middle East, and we had a couple thousand special forces as well as local supporting groups such as the Kurds,” Barr told National Review in an interview. “Over time, we were able to destroy them. Now, a lot of that included bombing targets, and I’m not suggesting we do that here, but the ability to use special operations and precision operations against what are paramilitary forces will allow us to reduce them in pretty short order.”

Opponents of using military force south of the border have caricatured their opponents, Barr argues, pointing out that force could be brought to bear without imposing significant costs on civilian populations.

“There’s sort of a bastardized version that has been put out mainly by the Left that says we’ll be bombing Mexico. That’s not what’s involved here,” he said. Barr’s preferred plan “would initially involve the collection of a lot of intelligence, using things like drones, to determine places where we either want to use law enforcement or military precision operations to either destroy or arrest or capture.”

Barr’s descriptions of proposed operations included “the use of units to go in and destroy” drug labs, which sound similar to counterterrorism operations conducted in the Middle East. Many other high-profile Republicans seem to be in agreement with his assessment.

Earlier this month, three GOP presidential primary candidates joined former president Donald Trump in pledging to enlist the U.S. military to target members of Mexican drug cartels. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Senator Tim Scott (R., S.C.), and former representative Will Hurd (R., Texas) have each committed to the use of force to combat the drug-smuggling plaguing the United States.

More than 70,000 Americans died from synthetic-opioid overdoses in 2021, with the majority of those deaths resulting from the often accidental use of fentanyl, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That number — with 2021 being the latest year on record — marked an all-time high for a problem that was virtually nonexistent a decade ago.

Though the United States has long worked to curb the trafficking of drugs from Mexico, the sharp increase in fentanyl-related deaths has prompted many Republican lawmakers to re-evaluate America’s strategy on that front. Historically, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has worked with the Mexican military to conduct law-enforcement operations south of the Rio Grande, but many observers no longer believe such a strategy works.

“The problem with using the Mexicans is that the country has become so corrupt that you can’t trust them, and therefore cartels are tipped off in advance,” Barr said. “The problem in Mexico is that the criminal-justice system is completely nonfunctional even in the best of times and only convicts something like 5 percent of people who are brought to trial. Given that the cartels kill judges, kill police, kill witnesses, and bribe, how are you going to use the criminal-justice system to stop these people? It just won’t happen, so I think it has to be escalated.”

Former president Donald Trump has said he would like to deploy U.S. special forces south of the border, Senators Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and J. D. Vance (R., Ohio) have signaled their support for boots on the ground, and Representatives Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas) and Mike Waltz (R., Fla.) introduced legislation in January that would establish an Authorization for Use of Military Force to target trafficking syndicates in Mexico.

Proponents of the military approach argue that the DEA, despite its best efforts, lacks the manpower and equipment required to address the threat posed by sophisticated and fabulously wealthy modern cartels.

“It’s miles and miles of armored cars and guys in camouflage uniforms carrying automatic weapons,” Barr told NR, referring to a video released by the Jalisco cartel. “It’s like a little army. What else do you do? Do you go arrest them and put handcuffs on them and have the Mexicans try them?”

Not all Trump-administration officials are as bullish as Barr. Former State Department policy-planning staff member Evan Ellis believes launching military operations in Mexico would cause more problems than it would solve — including alienating our southern neighbors and potentially pushing them closer to China — especially if done so without full cooperation from the country’s government.

“There’s a lot of Mexican history steeped in sensitivity to the U.S. taking military action on their soil when it doesn’t get what it wants,” Ellis said, referencing General John J. Pershing’s Pancho Villa Expedition. “This is not Iraq, where we just fly drones and do strikes with impunity and the government can’t say anything about it. . . . There would be an enormous political reaction on behalf of Mexicans that would reverberate not only with [Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador] but across all parties, including those faithful to the U.S.” For his part, López Obrador has called such proposals “an offense to the people of Mexico.”

Barr, on the other hand, contends that the experience of the Trump administrations shows that the United States can apply pressure to secure Mexican cooperation when needed. Just as trade threats pushed President López Obrador to cooperate with the administration’s Remain in Mexico policy, the U.S. has the leverage to secure approval for a military operation against the cartels, despite the Mexican president’s lack of interest in combating the criminal organizations.

“Part of what you have to do to get any progress at all is to convince them that we aren’t going to tolerate a modus vivendi and business as usual, and at the end of the day, we are willing to work unilaterally, though we would prefer to work in tandem with them,” Barr said. “That’s the only way we are going to get cooperation, and that’s the only way we did get cooperation.”

The tactical efficacy of a military operation is another item on which Barr and Ellis disagree. Ellis holds that the United States would not be able to successfully root out the cartels even if it did escalate the conflict.

“Digital intel and satellite intel without human cooperation are not perfect,” he said. “We just don’t have the human code to be able to strike with precision. . . . I think we need to control the physical border a lot more, and it’s not just a wall but revamping our immigration and asylum laws, creating physical security, and maybe imposing some costs and putting a little bit more commercial pressure on [López Obrador].”

Barr, though, is confident in the ability of American military might to bring the cartels to heel.

“If we get some level of cooperation with the Mexicans, then we have a whole range of assets, including law-enforcement assets, intelligence assets, and military assets, that can be brought to bear to reduce and ultimately destroy these organizations,” Barr said.

Read in National Review.