March 22, 2023
Center for Homeland Security and Immigration
‘All of the above’ approach needed to defeat Mexican drug cartels
March 22, 2023
It is not hyperbole to say that Mexican cartels are public enemy No. 1 for all Americans. Or at least they should be.
The cartels are the common denominator fueling the humanitarian, security and fentanyl crises along the southern border. Over the past several years, the cartels have been significantly emboldened and enabled by both the Biden administration’s disastrous border policies and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s cozy relationship with them. As a result, the cartels are killing literally hundreds of Mexicans and Americans daily. It is time to stop admiring the problem and attack it head-on.
The Mexican cartels are a national security threat, and an “all of the above” approach should be implemented to attack this threat aggressively. Here are several common-sense solutions that put Americans first.
First, the U.S. government needs to adopt a strategy that reflects the reality of the national security threat the cartels pose to the homeland. The current U.S. posture to combat the cartels is solely through a law enforcement lens. This is inadequate. For too long, we have tried to engage Mexican law enforcement officials through the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, and other law enforcement partners, but we have had only limited success doing so.
At the same time, we have deprioritized our ability to gather intelligence inside Mexico, and U.S. military leaders have been reluctant to engage this clear threat. We need a different mindset and strategy if we expect to succeed.
Second, the Biden administration needs to get tough on its Mexican counterparts. Historically, the U.S. and Mexico had a special relationship due to the 2,000 miles of shared border that facilitates trade, tourism, and other mutually beneficial interests. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, aka AMLO, has violated the spirit of this transactional relationship through his “hugs, not bullets” policy that helped empower the cartels to new heights, both in terms of finances and in the weapons they have amassed. A growing chorus of critics believes the Mexican president is more ally than adversary to the cartels.
To put this tough new approach into action, the Biden administration should implement a coordinated diplomatic and public affairs campaign that makes specific demands. The White House should demand that AMLO exercise Mexican-state sovereignty over all of Mexico and start protecting his own citizens from cartel violence.
Unfortunately, Mr. Lopez Obrador has ceded an estimated 35% to 45% of Mexican territory to cartel sovereignty. Rather than focusing on the U.S., as he did recently by commenting about interfering with U.S. elections, claiming that fentanyl is not produced in Mexico, and stating that Mexico is safer than the U.S., AMLO should do more to protect his own citizens. The Biden administration should pressure him to do so, which will, in turn, protect Americans.
Our government must demonstrate to Mr. Lopez Obrador that all options are on the table and that the U.S. is willing to take swift action against the cartels. One option that merits serious consideration is designating the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. Despite the White House press secretary’s assertion to the contrary, an FTO designation would enable more authorities to disrupt the cartels by using enhanced criminal sentences and the ability to target the larger web of cartel financing.
Another option on the table should be authorizing the use of military force against the cartels. The pundit class scoffed when President Donald Trump considered these options. Still, his willingness to explore options untapped since the U.S. government took down Pablo Escobar in Colombia was a sign of a strong leader.
Should these actions alone not persuade Mr. Lopez Obrador to take a more aggressive line against the cartels, the Biden administration should strongly consider options regarding trusted traveler programs. The administration could suspend the Department of Homeland Security’s Free and Secure Trade and Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection systems, which facilitate streamlined entry and exit at our ports of entry.
These actions and the others previously discussed provide leverage for the Biden administration to compel Mr. Lopez Obrador to get serious about the cartels and take decisive action.
Our experience tells us that the Mexican government is transactional in nature and responds to this type of pressure. Mr. Trump’s threat of tariffs led Mr. Lopez Obrador to deploy the Mexican national guard to their borders and to implement the “Remain in Mexico” policy. This policy is the most effective border security policy of our lifetimes and greatly disrupted the cartels’ pipeline of human and drug trafficking.
More recently, the state of Texas took similar action when Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the manual inspection of all tractor-trailers crossing the border, which noticeably slowed processing at the ports of entry. Legitimate commerce from Mexico was delayed because Texas could no longer take chances that these trailers contained smuggled migrants or illicit drugs, which put pressure on the Mexican government to address the situation.
Third, the social media and fintech companies whose platforms the cartels use to conduct their trafficking of migrants and fentanyl can play an important role in this effort. These companies need to step up and develop more robust protocols to determine how the cartels take advantage of their platforms and what they can do to prevent further criminal activities. Current safeguards do not go far enough to prevent these platforms from being used for nefarious purposes. In the past, these companies acted quickly to remove terrorist propaganda from their platforms and freeze accounts linked to terrorists. If these companies fail to make improvements voluntarily, Congress should be willing to use its authority to compel such action.
Border security is national security, and it is time to get serious about the growing threat posed by the Mexican cartels. The old playbook cannot get the job done, and an all-of-the-above approach is an effective new strategy to defeat the cartels, keep fentanyl out of our communities, and secure the border.
Read this Op-Ed in the Washington Times here.
Chad Wolf is the former acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and executive director and chair of the Center for Homeland Security and Immigration at the America First Policy Institute. Robert Law is director of the Center for Homeland Security & Immigration at the America First Policy Institute and the former chief of policy at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump administration.
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