Close the Border to Change Mexico’s Policies
American military intervention in our dysfunctional southern neighbor is unlikely to fare well.
Former Attorney General William Barr deserves credit for refocusing a policy debate on the Biden administration’s most neglected foreign affairs crisis, namely, how to respond to the criminality that Mexican cartels are unleashing across our southern border into America’s heartland. In a hotly debated Wall Street Journal piece, A.G. Barr explained the cartel threat was more than a law enforcement matter, and recommended a U.S. military response. “These narco-terrorist groups [in Mexico] are more like ISIS than like the American mafia,” Barr wrote, applauding congressional efforts to authorize “select military capabilities” to strike in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Jalisco.
Led by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, several members of Congress have also urged that Mexican criminal cartels be designated foreign terrorist organizations, and along the lines of Barr’s recommendation, confronted directly through U.S. military operations inside Mexican territory. In response, President Andres Manuel Obrador Lopez (AMLO), defending Mexico’s “national sovereignty,” predictably rejected out of hand Washington’s tough talk of U.S. military action. The frustration that Americans rightly feel about AMLO should not push us into ill-considered military incursions south of the border; as we will examine, Washington’s best strategy, among bad options, is to compel Mexican action against the cartels through U.S. border-closing diplomacy.
First, let’s examine what Barr’s proposed military response might entail. A case could be made for targeted drone strikes against cartel headquarters, key leaders, and fentanyl labs, but such attacks would only temporarily disrupt these criminal organizations, leaving them degraded for sure, but easily able to recover and resume illicit activities, as the past record of U.S.-Mexican counternarcotics cooperation documents. Moreover, collateral damage from past drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, often based on sketchy U.S. intelligence, show how missile attacks on the wrong or decoy targets leave behind boatloads of unintended consequences and often cause more problems than they solve.
Barr is recommending an even more aggressive approach that places U.S. armed forces inside Mexico, the proverbial boots on the ground, with or without that country’s consent. It is true that confronting dangers out of Mexico (unlike 2003 in Iraq) meets the vital-U.S.-national-interests test, measured by geographic proximity and harm to Americans (More than 64,000 fentanyl deaths in a year and massive illegal migration). It is less clear that a U.S. military incursion, with all its related costs and blowback, would deliver positive results, particularly in light of past failures.
To justify an incursion into Mexico, Barr points to the decades of U.S. involvement in Colombia, an example often cited to justify Washington’s commitment of robust law enforcement and military resources to help a foreign partner in an internal security struggle. On closer scrutiny, however, the Colombia example is not so clear-cut; the outcomes of U.S.-Colombian counternarcotics cooperation and even the counterinsurgency against the guerrillas are still hotly debated.
Furthermore, Colombia’s law enforcement and security achievements were mainly possible through the decisive military leadership of President Alvaro Uribe. Mexico’s AMLO, no Alvaro Uribe, is a thorough-going U.S. skeptic and populist leftist, who will only cooperate with Washington when compelled to do so. In fact, upon assuming office, AMLO announced he wanted to "reorient" the “Merida Initiative,” the ambitious U.S.-Mexico counter-narcotics and security cooperation program that had been modeled on Plan Colombia, but ended in disappointment and failure.
The Merida Initiative, sometimes called Plan Mexico, was the cornerstone of U.S.-Mexican cooperation in support of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon (in office from 2006 to 2012). The State Department directed three billion dollars over a decade toward remaking Mexico’s criminal justice system, while the Pentagon provided that country’s armed forces with training and modern weapons. President Calderon (and later his successor Enrique Pena Nieto) aggressively committed the Mexican army and marines to break the country’s powerful cartels, called transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in Washington-speak.
After much bloody engagement, with lots of civilian losses, the military campaign was judged ineffectual, even before AMLO took office, as was more than ten years of U.S. foreign assistance. As with America’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Merida Initiative's failures provide Washington policymakers many valuable lessons about the foolhardiness of undertaking security cooperation in complicated countries burdened with corruption and poverty, with traditions very different from our own.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that U.S. armed forces on the ground are highly unlikely to achieve any better results than the Mexican military in permanently eradicating the cartels. Supported by U.S. intelligence, the Mexican army and marines performed reasonably well in the field, defeating cartel irregular fighters in bloody head-on engagements. The DEA and DOJ also encouraged the Mexicans to target drug-lord “kingpins,” but even as many leaders were eliminated, new chiefs emerged, and splintered cartels possessed an amazing regenerative power to reconstitute themselves.
Like temporarily scrubbed away bathroom mold, TCOs returned to prey on weak Mexican state and local authorities, who were and remain incapable of holding cleansed territory due to the diabolical combination of bribes and targeted violence. No experts in Mexico City or Washington have the formula that keeps Mexican officials from regularly succumbing to these cartel tactics. Thus, American armed forces in Mexico surely would have the same ephemeral impact on the TCOs: yes, they could close down cartel bases and destroy weapon caches; capture and kill criminal leaders; and disrupt communication networks and planning—but all only temporarily.
Barr would likely advocate a quick airlifted U.S. military incursion, followed by a fast withdrawal that would leave no American units long-term on Mexican territory. Maybe that tactic looks good on paper, but conservatives are rightly concerned about an exit strategy, knowing that a combination of fuzzy U.S. combat objectives and nation-building mission creep can keep the Pentagon and State Department entangled in unwinnable foreign operations.
Perhaps more than any other concern, putting U.S. boots on the ground will assuredly make Washington responsible for any resulting mess in a country already on the edge of collapse. When inevitable combat mistakes occur, grandstanding politicians and globalists everywhere will “blame America” and demand a Mexican “Marshall Plan,” calling for massive numbers of U.S. visas and residency for displaced Mexicans and a more porous border to help our embattled southern neighbor.
While the U.S. military might be useful in a patrolling mission along the southern border, there are too many risks inherent in Barr’s incursion plans. A wiser American strategy would be to apply border leverage: By denying Mexican commerce and travelers routine permission to cross the border, Washington could force specific changes in Mexico’s national security priorities in a way that serves U.S. interests. Despite AMLO’s bluster about his country’s sovereignty, Mexico’s failure to seriously hinder the TCOs accords Washington the right to close its border, a well-recognized tenet of international custom. Moreover, the Trump administration effectively demonstrated that with the use (or threat) of tariffs, border-crossing closings and similar tough diplomatic tools, Washington can fundamentally alter AMLO’s priorities.
Even for a Mexican president serious about security, as Calderon was, there are no easy answers to the country’s criminal calamity. Mexico’s justice system is dysfunctional; murder and kidnapping rates continue to soar, while corruption pervades the country’s institutions. A Washington border strategy, therefore, would not seek to return to Calderon’s guerra contra el narco, which is beyond Mexico’s strained capacity, but it should demand that AMLO make the northern states along the U.S. border a security priority by committing new Mexican federal resources and military forces to that region. Hindering the movement of contraband across the border remains our best security tool.
Historically, Mexico City has neglected security in its large northern states such as Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, which are Mexico’s key gateways to U.S. markets (Mexico’s $1.3 trillion economy exports almost $400 billion to the United States annually). A U.S. border-leverage strategy would insist AMLO end the neglect, specifically require Mexico to deploy federal security assets in sufficient numbers and with permanent presence to, at least, deter the TCOs and challenge their border sanctuaries. AMLO cannot defeat the cartels, but the Mexican military can put them on the defensive, and that is likely as much as any American security policy can achieve.
Washington’s first specific objective should focus on Mexico’s neglected major frontier cities: Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez, Reynosa and Matamoros. Washington diplomacy should demand that Mexico’s federal government become creative with new ways to reclaim and pacify these dangerous urban centers perched on the U.S. border. It is time for Mexico to use measures such as imposing martial law and convoking special summary criminal tribunals. Human rights activists will condemn such steps, of course, but currently TCOs act with impunity, causing thousands of Mexican (and many American) deaths and kidnappings. Just as AMLO has ignored this border situation, Washington likewise has made no targeted diplomatic demands to link Mexico’s poor security performance in these key cities to the overall bilateral relationship.
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We should also make a special case out of the border city of Nuevo Laredo, where a whopping 40 percent of Mexico’s trade crosses into Texas on its way to the U.S. Midwest and East Coast. Although Nuevo Laredo’s city police department was disbanded more than a decade ago for corruption, Mexican goods and products continue to flow northward, unhindered by the local cartel that in fact gets its own cut from the legal trade. Mexican federal authorities see no reason to upset this dubious arrangement and are content to station a token army regiment (about 500–700 troops), to cover not only the defenseless city (population 460,000) but a vast border region. It is no surprise that Americans avoid Nuevo Laredo and the brutal local cartel there has acted for years with total impunity.
A.G. Barr proposes U.S. military strikes against powerful cartels deep in Mexico’s interior, in the states of Sinaloa and Jalisco, where any gains would only be temporary. The goal of the border-closing strategy is to force Mexico City to be permanently concerned about security in its neglected northern region that abuts the United States. Directly across from Texas, the Mexican state of Tamaulipas (population 3.5 million and more than half the size of Alabama) is another story of negligence on a vast scale. Years ago, Tamaulipas was effectively abandoned by Mexico’s federal government as a cartel-controlled region. For years, the state has been a cartel staging area for striking at the United States; demanding more Mexican troops be sent there should be very high on Washington’s list.
Washington's use of border-closing diplomacy would not make the northern states a magical “buffer zone” against the cartels, of course, and it would force Mexico to weaken protection in other regions, but it is the best U.S. option among bad choices. Making targeted demands and incentivizing Mexico City to search for new security solutions will shake up AMLO, his leadership, and the Mexican Congress. It will help mobilize Mexico’s professional and middle classes who want desperately to see the status quo change. It is a much better option than putting U.S. boots on the ground in Tamaulipas or anywhere else in this embattled country. Washington should not send out a modern-day General John Pershing, who would just end up chasing after criminal cartels that vanish and reappear like Pancho Villa’s guerrilla army.