Perspective: War with the Cartels Is More Complicated Than It Sounds
Michael L. Burgoyne and Albert J. Marckwardt
Without a hint of reflection on the dismal strategic outcomes of the twenty-year debacle in Afghanistan and the ongoing investment in Iraq, there is a growing movement to authorize the use of military force against Mexican cartels. Carl Von Clausewitz famously admonishes that “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking.” The United States would be wise to heed this warning. The use of US military force could result in the disarticulation of targeted cartels; however, it will not reduce the flow of illicit drugs, including fentanyl. Worse still, the unilateral use of U.S. military power in Mexico risks another unrestrained military adventure and severe damage to bilateral relations with the number two U.S. trading partner.
Vehicle-mounted M2 .50 caliber machine guns, USMC, Public Domain.
Good strategy must clearly articulate its objective and then develop a resource informed plan to achieve it. Military support or action can dismantle transnational criminal organizations. This can be extremely valuable when these groups are a direct threat to the state—as was the case with the Medellin and Cali Cartels. However, advocates for the use of force in Mexico argue that unleashing the US military on the cartels will stop the flow of fentanyl and reduce the number of overdoses. At a cost of $10 billion, Plan Colombia was critical in increasing stability, but as a counterdrug strategy it didn’t make a dent. In fact, cocaine production is at record levels, exceeding 900 tons a year. A decade ago, an all-out war was waged by Mexican security forces against Los Zetas. That cartel never recovered, but drug trafficking didn’t skip a beat, and new cartels emerged to fill the void. If the US objective is to reduce drug overdoses, the use of military force will not achieve this goal.
The concept of a unified “cartel” is also problematic. These are networks that integrate a broad swath of the population including corrupt politicians, police officers, and business owners. They are inherently multinational, integrating US citizens and dual citizens throughout their organizations on both sides of the border, including US based gun dealers that provide a constant stream of weapons. This is an environment fraught with uncertainty and primed for rapid escalation. Pending congressional legislation targeting cartels provides too wide a latitude for lethal military action and replicates the open-ended authorities and mistakes of the War on Terror.
Unilateral military action also invites a serious diplomatic fallout with Mexico. The Mexican-American War, Punitive Expedition, cross border raids, and the occupation of Veracruz are footnotes in US history books, but they are key components of the Mexican national narrative. This amounts to a powder keg of Mexican nationalism primed for ignition. Integrated North American supply chains and growing efforts at nearshoring are essential to freeing critical manufacturing capability from dependence on China. Our global competitors would be the greatest beneficiaries of a breakdown in bilateral trade. With a war in Ukraine raging and tensions with China on the rise, initiating a conflict with Mexico would be strategic malpractice.
A simplistic call for a military solution imposed on foreigners is certainly appealing, but national introspection on the drivers of drug abuse is what is truly necessary. For 50 years, a supply side drug war approach has not achieved the objective of reducing drug use or overdose deaths. The rise of synthetic drugs has further degraded the viability of this strategy. Harm reduction methodologies employed in Portugal and Oregon provide a potentially more effective health-based approach to the problem.
Barring radical changes to US drug policies, any use of force in Mexico should follow the Special Forces tenant of actions “by, with, and through” the Mexican government under the more limited and achievable outcome of the disintegration of the most egregiously violent and destabilizing organizations. Mexico suffers over 30,000 annual homicides and criminal groups regularly target law enforcement, politicians, and journalists. The most promising approach would be a sequential, focused, and systematic targeting strategy aimed at cartel behavior modification as outlined by Mark Kleiman.
When employed with precision, the military can play an important role against transnational criminal organizations that threaten stability. However, military force has not been effective in decreasing drug use in the United States. A more effective strategy would focus on the demand for illicit drugs and limit the harm caused by their use. Lawmakers would be wise to examine their objectives for a “War on the Cartels” to avoid another costly and ill-conceived military escapade.
 US Congress, House, AUMF Cartel Influence Resolution. 118th Cong., J.R. 18. https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/house-joint-resolution/18/text?r=2&s=1.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, p.88.
 “Trade in Goods with Mexico.” Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c2010.html.
 Congressional Research Service, Colombia: Background and U.S. Relations, Washington, DC: CRS Reports. 16 December 2021, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R43813.
 “ONDCP Releases Data on Coca Cultivation and Production in the Andean Region.” Washington, DC: The White House. 4 July 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/briefing-room/2022/07/14/ondcp-releases-data-on-coca-cultivation-and-production-in-the-andean-region/
 Ioan Grillo, Blood Gun Money. New York, Bloomsbury. 2021, https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Gun-Money-Firearms-Trafficking/dp/1635572789.
 Peter Appleby, Chris Dalby, Sean Doherty, Scott Mistler-Ferguson, and h\Henry Shuldiner, “Homicide Roundup.” Insight Crime. 8 February 2023, https://insightcrime.org/news/insight-crime-2022-homicide-round-up/ - Mexico
 Mark Kleiman, “Surgical Strikes in the Drug Wars.” Foreign Affairs. 1 September 2011, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-america/2011-09-01/surgical-strikes-drug-wars.