Sending Drones After the Cartels Won’t Win Mexico’s Drug War

Mexico is experiencing the most violence since the inception of its drug war 14 years ago. Last year alone, the country reported over 31,000 homicides, an all-time high—the impotence of security forces emboldening narco traffickers to stage their attacks in broad daylight [1]. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has come under fire for failing to curb the bloodshed, with his peace-making approach, “abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs, not bullets”), becoming the subject of widespread derision. 

Last November, President Trump declared his intention to address the chaos south of the border by naming the Mexican cartels terror groups. “They will be designated [as terrorists],” Trump said during an interview with Bill O’Reilly. “I have been working on that for the last 90 days.” At the request of López Obrador, Trump indefinitely postponed the designation, but later wrote on Twitter: “All necessary work has been completed to declare Mexican Cartels terrorist organizations. Statutorily we are ready to do so [2].”

In other words, Trump could at any time revive the terror label and slap it on the cartels—a reality which raises several concerns. Foremost among them, whether these groups are technically terrorist organizations, and further, would it be a good idea to designate them as such? 

Even for all their savagery, the short answer is no, to both questions. 

Admittedly, the cartels do share certain similarities with terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda. They stage violent attacks, often target civilians, and have de facto control over significant swathes of territory. But U.S. legislation defines terrorism as being “politically motivated,” and unlike the Islamist militants of the Middle East, Mexican drug traffickers are driven by profit, not by a political agenda [3]. Even their politically-tinged activities, such as bribing and assassinating elected officials, are aimed solely at increasing the ease with which they do business.

But even if the cartels don’t neatly fit the official terrorist definition, what would be the practical implications of declaring them to be terror groups? Many argue that there could be some strategic advantages to doing so. Under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Act, the president can use “all necessary and appropriate force” to combat groups posing an imminent terrorist threat, meaning that the executive branch would be within its rights to order drone strikes or special operations against Mexico’s cartels [4]. The terror label would also allow the U.S. to more effectively prosecute extradited cartel members or potentially detain them indefinitely as “enemy combatants” at facilities like Guantanamo Bay [5].

Opening yet another front in the “War on Terror,” this one just south of the U.S. border, would have unacceptable fallout. The implications for civilian casualties alone are sobering, as counter-terrorism missions tend to be anything but surgical. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes over the course of both the Obama and Trump administrations have killed up to 1,725 innocent civilians (400 of them children) [6]. While similar aerial attacks in Mexico might put the cartels on the defensive, they would also threaten the security of the country’s embattled populace. This is not to mention the thorny task that would confront U.S. officials of first deciding which cartels merit a terrorist designation, and then identifying all of their members without bringing unaffiliated, non-terrorist criminals into the mix. 

Needless to say, carrying out unilateral military operations on Mexican soil would do considerable damage to America’s relationship with one of its most important regional partners. López Obrador has insisted that U.S. intervention south of the border would be a violation of Mexican sovereignty, and the Mexican public is universally opposed to the idea of hosting even a limited number of U.S. troops. Analysts also warn that the terrorist label would upend carefully calibrated Mexican-American cooperation on migration, security, and even trade, potentially discouraging financial institutions from investing in the country and thus curbing U.S. imports.  

Thankfully, starting a war on “terror” in Mexico is not the only available strategy for winning the country’s drug war. Last year, the New York Times documented a witness-protection program in southern Mexico which cut deals with detained cartel hitmen, granting them clemency in exchange for prosecutable evidence against their bosses [7]. While the program was surprisingly successful, it was underfunded, ultimately collapsing when its director accepted a promotion on the other side of the country. U.S. dollars could give local programs like these the teeth and sustainability necessary to make a long-term difference. Foreign aid for similar programs in Central American countries has been critical to preventing complete lawlessness, and could serve as a model for their neighbor to the north. Though not a silver bullet, investing in effective local security efforts is a compelling alternative to American military involvement in another intractable conflict.    

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/more-than-60000-mexicans-have-been-disappeared-amid-drug-war-officials-say/2020/01/06/07a4ea56-24f8-11ea-9cc9-e19cfbc87e51_story.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/us/trump-drug-cartels-terrorists.html
  3. Ibid.
  4. https://www.congress.gov/107/plaws/publ40/PLAW-107publ40.pdf
  5. https://www.aclu.org/issues/national-security/detention/guantanamo-bay-detention-camp
  6. https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/projects/drone-war
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/14/world/americas/sicario-mexico-drug-cartels.html 
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Dan Harker

DAN HARKER is a senior from Orem, Utah, majoring in Middle East Studies/Arabic. Dan loves learning languages and traveling and has recently spent time exploring Jordan, Israel, Qatar, Mexico, and Morocco. When in Provo, he contributes to research on Islamist parties in the Arab World and American perceptions of elected officials. After graduating from BYU, he hopes to earn a doctorate in political science and pursue a career as a policymaker for national security. Dan’s guilty pleasures include binging Breaking Bad and New Girl as well as listening to Susan Rice’s autobiography while making chorizo burritos. Dan fervently believes that Chick-Fil-A is overpriced and really not all that great to begin with.

Dan Harker

DAN HARKER is a senior from Orem, Utah, majoring in Middle East Studies/Arabic. Dan loves learning languages and traveling and has recently spent time exploring Jordan, Israel, Qatar, Mexico, and Morocco. When in Provo, he contributes to research on Islamist parties in the Arab World and American perceptions of elected officials. After graduating from BYU, he hopes to earn a doctorate in political science and pursue a career as a policymaker for national security. Dan’s guilty pleasures include binging Breaking Bad and New Girl as well as listening to Susan Rice’s autobiography while making chorizo burritos. Dan fervently believes that Chick-Fil-A is overpriced and really not all that great to begin with.

2 thoughts on “Sending Drones After the Cartels Won’t Win Mexico’s Drug War

  • February 11, 2020 at 7:12 am
    Permalink

    I am so glad someone is focusing on this topic! Go Dan! This is well intentioned but, I believe that there is another perspective greatly left out in the article. As someone who has not only visited many parts in Mexico but has lived in Mexico and grew up in a border state, the drug war is a reality. Thousands of Americans and Mexicans have died from the drug war. I believe war should be a last resort, but this article seems to focus more so on the ideal than the reality of the drug war. About the witness-protection programs, many Mexicans don’t trust the justice system and in fact, 12% of cases relating to high crimes aren’t settled. For many Mexicans It’s better to not involve the police when there is a crime. Mexico is skeptical of their own justice system. Impunity and corruption are everywhere. Sure witness-protection programs have been effective, but that is not enough to stop the cartels.

    The drug war has come to the point where we need to think outside of the box. Intelligence, such as the drones can be the solution. I am not saying the U.S. should go in with troops nor should they disregard Mexico’s sovereignty. But, if Mexico and the U.S. were to work together with the U.S. aiding in manning drones by the Mexican military, this would change the whole game of the cartels. The cartels are smart, but they aren’t geniuses. With drones, we can find tunnels. If the cartels don’t have the resources and money to continue with their business, they will be weakened.

    In my opinion and at a certain point, diplomacy won’t work with these cartels. Especially with low trust in the Mexican justice system, it almost seems like an ideal to only use diplomacy to erase the cartels. The only way to do so is with showing power. I believe drones can do that, many of my own Mexican friends such as Marco and Luis Mallozzi believe that this is a probable solution as do many Mexicans: https://www.wired.com/story/ensenada-mexico-police-drone/. (This report shows that one drone bought crime down in a Mexican city). Just another opinion to think about, drones work and they have cut down on crime. The witness-protection programs may be effective but they won’t get at the root of the problem, they can sometimes even be counter-productive since there is such low trust in the rule of law in Mexico.

    Reply
    • February 11, 2020 at 10:28 pm
      Permalink

      Hi Hunter! Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I’m glad to hear you care so much about this issue, and it sounds like your personal connections to the region give you some valuable insights about potential solutions. While I think you bring up some valid points, I would contend that there is a difference between using surveillance drones to ferret out drug traffickers (as described in your wired piece) and designating the cartels terrorists and applying US military force against them. I think my title may have been misleading here, as I was trying to convey that using counterterrorism against the cartels could backfire, not that using areal surveillance would not be a viable solution.

      As I mentioned in the article, I think the reason witness-protection and other local security programs have so far failed to make to make a lasting dent against the cartels is because they have been underfunded and under-equipped, and as you astutely observed, this has eroded public trust in the state. I think the first step towards mitigating this problem is restoring the rule of law by piloting well-funded and well-supplied local security efforts and resuscitating levels of trust in public institutions.

      In other words, in this article I hoped to advocate for renewed cooperation with Mexico with focus on facilitating the restoration of the rule of law there rather than engaging in unilateral military efforts. However, I’m certainly no expert on the topic and am always open to learn from empirical, data-driven arguments. Thanks again for your feedback!

      Reply

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